FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez makes it almost impossible not to root for him. The guy is infinitely likable.*
* In this post-Manti Te’o fake girlfriend world, look for disclaimers to become the new normal. I do not know Gonzalez personally. All I know is what he presents, which is an insanely talented tight end and genuinely good guy who has had staying power in a league where that is increasingly difficult.
There is also the fact he has never won a championship in his 16 NFL seasons. His first (and only) playoff win came in Year 16, last week when Atlanta shocked Seattle with a last-second, come-from-behind victory to advance to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against San Francisco. There is nothing we the sports media love more than when good guys hang around for a long time without winning a championship. Call this the Ray Bourque phenomenon, Bourque being the Hall of Fame defenseman who after 21 years as a Boston Bruin without a Stanley Cup went to Colorado and etched his name. And here comes the crucial part: In doing so, he changed his legacy. Or so goes the narrative.
Change hockey to football, defense to tight end and Boston to Kansas City and you have Gonzalez’s story, or almost. He needs another two W’s for his championship.
In a team sport like football, how much of one’s legacy should hinge on championships won?
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Gonzalez said when I asked Thursday. His answer was long and extremely thoughtful and he quickly noted a lot of folks were not going to agree. He understands we live in a sports culture “winning is everything” and “ring is the thing” and “one for the thumb”.
“I have said that before and, even now, after I have my first playoff victory, I still think the same thing. It’s not really fair to judge a player by ‘OK, did he win a Super Bowl or not?’ It’s about how he played, week in and week out,” Gonzalez said.
He noted the 2003 Kansas Chiefs team he played on that went 13-3, had one of the best offenses in the NFL and arrived at the playoffs and lost to the Indianapolis Colts. Their defense just was not good enough, and that does not crack the top 10 of most heartbreaking ways playoff games have been lost. This is a league where games are decided by kickers going wide right and Playmate’s husband’s failing to properly field an onside kick.
“That’s just how it goes,” he continued, knowing that of which he speaks. “You can’t say a player isn’t Hall of Fame worthy, or a Pro Bowler or anything like that because he’s not on a winning team.”
But we do. We do this a lot, actually. We say a guy is just not quite as good because of an outcome of a game that may or may not have anything to do with him. Just this past weekend, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning got carved as a choker because, as best I can tell, his defense failed to properly execute the particulars of playing safety in the NFL.
This does not make Manning a choker, or Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco a winner. Nor does Flacco, or Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan for that matter, return to choker status if they fail to win this week. A game is an impossibly bad way to define the legacy of a player and body of work is inexact as well. There are just too many variables involved in football to stake the legacies of an individual player based on the success of his team. Yet, we do. And a big reason why this narrative endures is because players and coaches and NFL types buy into this myth. Falcons coach Mike Smith said as much Thursday, though he mistakenly kept saying offseason instead of postseason.
“It’s a team sport and I think ultimately everybody knows how you are going to be judged in a team sport. It is how you perform in the (post)season,” Smith said. “I really believe your legacy is going to be based on the success you had in the (post)season. It doesn’t mean you are not a great player or you haven’t been on great teams. It is just very difficult to win in the National Football League.”
I do not blame him for the answer. The last thing anybody in Atlanta wants to hear going into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is their coach saying winning or losing does not impact his legacy or that of his players. And while Gonzalez disagrees with that standard, the championship is why he is back.
He admitted he would have retired years ago if not for his lack of playoff success. This is his last kick at the can, 95 percent guaranteed.
“The only reason I am at 95 is I don’t want to close the window all the way just in case. If we get really, really close and obviously that means getting past this and into the (Super Bowl) and we don’t win. Then, OK, we are right there and maybe I can come back and get it,” Gonzalez said. “That is the last thing I want to do is chase a Super Bowl.”
And the last thing we should do is hinge his legacy on whether he wins one. His legacy is set; the best to ever play the position and a great guy. No asterisk this time because I am confident Gonzalez is exactly who he presents himself to be. A win Sunday, a win or loss on Super Bowl Sunday changes nothing except the last line about how he exited the game he played so well.