Gonzalez wants to finish Hall of Fame career on a high note

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Not with a bang, but a whimper.

That is how one of the greatest careers in NFL history will end when Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez hangs ’em up after 17 seasons.

But as long as he remains active — and Gonzalez has battled a toe injury for weeks — the Falcons intend to use Gonzalez as much as possible, in an effort to win every game while also playing younger players.

In Sunday’s loss at Green Bay, Gonzalez played 100 percent of the offensive snaps for the first time this season.

While Gonzalez tends to play the overwhelming majority of the offense’s plays — a couple of times this season he has missed playing 100 percent of the snaps by just one play — he has played as few as 68 percent. That came on Nov. 17 against Tampa Bay when he suffered the toe injury.

In the weeks following that injury, Gonzalez played 93 percent of the snaps against New Orleans and 84 percent against Buffalo. Entering the Packers game, the team listed him as questionable — a 50 percent chance — on Friday in terms of his ability to play that Sunday.

All of which lends a symbolic quality to the fact that Gonzalez played all of the offensive snaps against Green Bay. Certainly, the team’s game plan must have played a role, but the situation also creates an aura of Gonzalez’s wanting to play as much as he humanly can in his limited time.

“Tony wants to savor every snap that he has left,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “We know that he has a finite number of snaps left in this season now that we know that there’s just three more games.

“There’s no postseason so I think Tony wants to play as many snaps as he can. He gives us the best chance to win when he’s in there so I would imagine Tony’s going to play a lot of plays these last three games.”

Gonzalez said he’ll do whatever is needed.

“Obviously, I’d like to continue my role like it’s been and play a majority of the snaps, which is because I want to contribute and I want to be out there,” Gonzalez told FOXSportsSouth.com, “So, yeah, I don’t have a problem with that. Yeah, three games left. Why not?”

Why not? This is not how it was supposed to end. Gonzalez said he retired after last season, when the Falcons fell 10 yards short of a Super Bowl berth with a loss to San Francisco in the NFC championship.

He said the Falcons talked him out of retirement in hopes of claiming the first Super Bowl victory of his career.

Instead, the future Hall of Fame finds himself playing out the string. He has not missed a game since Nov. 19, 2006, a streak he undoubtedly takes great pride in.

Remarkably, that is one of only two games he has missed in his entire career. Gonzalez seems determined not to miss any time this season, no matter the toe. He has caught passes in 208 consecutive games.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said he wants to try and help Gonzalez to go out on a high note.

“It’s one of those things, not very often do you know that it’s your last three games and it’s a little bit different,” Ryan said. “I try and do things the same way. I try and give him the best I can give him and I think that’s probably the best thing you can do as a player, to have myself as best prepared as I can so that I play well and ultimately, if I can put him in good position to make plays, he’s going to enjoy his last three games so that’s really been my focus.

“I’ve enjoyed my time with him since he’s been here. He’s a great friend. Will remain a great friend but at this point I think it’s about focusing and trying to play well.” Ryan threw Gonzalez a two-yard touchdown pass last week, the 109th of Gonzalez’s career. Perhaps there are a few others left.

Other veterans have started to lose playing time, as the Falcons begin to prepare for the future. Those include cornerback Asante Samuel, who was replaced last week by second-round pick Robert Alford, and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who played a minority of the snaps last week in favor of undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder.

However, when it comes to Gonzalez, the Falcons are sticking with him – even if rookie fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo might need a little more development in the pass-catching area.

“Tony gives us the best chance to win when he’s playing at the tight end position,” Smith said. “If that wasn’t the case, then we would put someone else in there. … Again, there’s certain guys that are head and shoulders above other players on our team in terms of the play time they should have and Tony’s one of them.”

No doubt about that.