For the first time since the Atlanta Falcons joined the NFL in 1966, they have reached 5-0 to start a season and after a 24-17 comeback victory at Washington, they mainly owe it to their oldest player, the one who says this season will most likely be his last — tight end Tony Gonzalez.
The 36-year-old, 16-year veteran arguably was the best player on the field on Sunday, as he caught 13 passes — the second-most of his career — for 123 yards and a touchdown. All of that brings us to wonder a collective, why, again, has Gonzalez said he is 95 percent sure that this will be his final season in the NFL?
Entering the season, his 1,149 receptions ranked most second most in league history. He now has 39 catches in five games in 2012, which could put him in the running for the most in the league after Week 5. St. Louis’ Danny Amendola (five games) and the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz (four games) were tied for the league lead with 32 entering Sunday. Cruz had five more in Sunday’s 41-27 win over Cleveland, putting Gonzalez ahead of him.
While speaking to reporters on the second day of Falcons’ training camp about his decision, Gonzalez said he does not want to discuss the subject anymore. Here’s what he said on the topic back on July 27:
“It’s not a matter of me thinking I can play,” Gonzalez said. “Honestly, if I’m healthy, knock on wood, I can play another three years — and effectively, too. But it’s really not about that. Sometimes you have to call it quits and I’m just one of those guys that can’t handle being average at this sport because I’ve been at the top for a while and I hope that’s not coming off cocky, but that’s just the way I operate and I don’t want to come out there and be somewhat of a role player.
“I want to be a guy who can contribute and give it and play like I’m supposed to. I don’t want people looking at the TV and saying, ‘You know, what? He was good back in the day.’ Or, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s definitely lost a step.’ You know, they’re kind of saying it right now, but I don’t believe it.”
Well, they’re probably not saying it after Sunday’s performance. Here are a few superlatives: His 123 yards receiving were his most since Dec. 2, 2007, at home for Kansas City against San Diego and his receptions were his most since Jan. 2, 2005, at San Diego. (Get a sense Gonzalez, a Southern California native, liked to play against the Chargers when he was a member of the Chiefs?)
On Sunday, the Redskins’ defensive game plan appeared to be to take away the deep ball from the Falcons’ dangerous wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White and allow quarterback Matt Ryan the passes underneath. Former Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall did an excellent job locking down whichever receiver he was matched up against as that part of the Redskins’ plan held up.
Nonetheless, the Falcons often say that their offense will take what the defense gives them and Ryan took and took and took in the direction of his big tight end all day long.
Ryan, who is having an MVP-caliber season, had his poorest game of the season — which is to say he completed 34-of-52 passes for 345 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for a rating of 89.0, his first time under 100 in 2012. In the first half, Washington victimized him for an interception returned for a touchdown and later he fumbled a snap, which Washington recovered, in Redskins’ territory.
But Gonzalez helped him to tie the game at 7-7 by halftime. In the final minute of the second quarter, Ryan found Gonzalez over the middle for a 21-yard reception. Gonzalez lunged toward the end zone but his outstretched arm fell one yard short. On the next play, Ryan threw high over a defender in the corner as Gonzalez came down with his fourth touchdown of the season and 99th of what is undoubtedly a hall of fame career. It was Gonzalez’s ninth reception of the half on 10 targets.
Perhaps this is why Gonzalez left himself that wiggle room about whether he would retire at season’s end.
“That five percent is just something in case,” he said amid the summer heat. “… Right now my family and my children, they’re ready for me to be around the house full-time now.”
Back on that July day, Falcons head coach Mike Smith agreed with Gonzalez’s assessment that he could play three more years.
“I’m glad to hear he thinks he can play three more years,” Smith said. “Maybe he will.”