Parting shot: Falcons TE Gonzalez says QB Ryan isn't yet 'elite'

Tony Gonzalez had some interesting things to say about Falcons QB Matt Ryan ... along with his final season in Atlanta, supposedly the swan-song year of a Hall of Fame career.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan has produced three straight seasons of 4,000 yards passing and 90 total TDs since 2011, but he still has more to learn, in the eyes of teammate Tony Gonzalez.

Kelley L. Cox/Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, it seems pointless to debate the status of a quarterback who has accounted for 13,411 yards passing and 90 total touchdowns over the last three seasons, with an NFC championship appearance thrown into the mix.

And yet, here we are, thanks to Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Citing an ESPN The Magazine article that's due to hit the shelves soon, the future Hall of Famer had some interesting things to say about QB Matt Ryan ... along with his final season in Atlanta, supposedly the swan-song year of an amazing career.

Regarding Ryan's possible status as an "elite" QB, Gonzalez said, "Matt's an excellent quarterback. But he's not elite. He's thisclose. He'll get there, but he has some learning to do."

Gonzalez's candid comment could be construed in various ways. On one hand, it sounds like Gonzalez may be questioning Ryan's overall place in the pantheon of quarterbacks, especially in lieu of the Falcons passer's $20 million annual salary (contract extension signed last July).

On the flip side, it's not like Gonzalez has partnered up with some of the most prolific passers over the last 16 years. Before coming to Atlanta, his quarterbacks with the Kansas City Chiefs (1997-2008) ranged from Trent Green and Elvis Grbac to Damon Huard and Tyler Thigpen.

It's also worth noting Gonzalez recently told AtlantaFalcons.com that Ryan is "better than any other quarterback I've ever played with."

In other words, Gonzalez has gotten caught in his own web of semantical posturing, with no easy way out of this tangled mess. Here's why: There is no clear definition, or means of quantifying what makes for an "elite" NFL quarterback.

Plus, there's no finite number on how many active QBs can be elite at the same time.

For what it's worth, Ryan has eclipsed 4,000 yards passing in each of the last three seasons (2011-13). And from 2008-12, Ryan's first five years in the league, he enjoyed a 34-7 record as a starter at the Georgia Dome (including the playoffs).

The Falcons, as a team, took a step backwards in 2013, winning just four games while suffering through a rash of crucial injuries -- including receiver Julio Jones' season-ending foot malady in October (against the Jets).

In other Gonzalez news ...

**In the ESPN interview, Gonzalez might have left the door open on a 2014 comeback -- perhaps around the Thanksgiving holiday.

And why not? At age 37 (he turns 38 later this month), Gonzalez (83 catches, 859 yards, eight TDs in 2013) seemingly has more gas left in the proverbial tank.

And waiting another year probably won't affect his chances of landing a post-career broadcasting gig -- should the camera-friendly Gonzalez (15,127 career receiving yards, 111 TDs) pursue that avenue when officially retired.

**One last thing: It seems Gonzalez would have been receptive to a pre-deadline trade during the 2013 season -- even if he didn't take that wish public.

Obviously, the Falcons didn't pull the trigger on that move, opting to ride out an underwhelming season with a future Hall of Famer.