Tony Gonzalez walked off the Georgia Dome field with his head held high, waving one last time to fans.
For 17 years, he'd given everything he had.
On Sunday, it was four catches for 56 yards. But that wasn't enough as the Falcons completed a disappointing season with a 21-20 defeat to Carolina before 70,426 fans, which included a strong Carolina contingent, at the Georgia Dome.
"There are a lot of lessons you can learn from Tony Gonzalez just by watching him," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It has been a pleasure and an honor to have the opportunity to coach, in my opinion, the greatest tight end to ever play the game."
It wasn't supposed to end this way. The Panthers harassed, tormented and pummeled quarterback Matt Ryan on their way to a single-game record nine-sack performance. They also managed 14 more quarterback hits against the Falcons leaky pass protection.
The Panthers wrapped up the NFC South title with the win and earned a first-round playoff bye. The Falcons finished 4-12, closing the books on one of the most discouraging seasons in franchise history.
Then they said goodbye to Gonzalez, for the last five years a Falcons mainstay.
"Tight end has changed as a position so much over the years, going from the sixth blocker on the line who occasionally caught passes to one who, in offenses featuring players like Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, is often the main focus of the offensive game plan," wrote Peter King, editor-in-chief of the MMQB.com in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"And so while Mike Ditka and John Mackey and later Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winsow, and more recently Shannon Sharpe could all justifiably stake the claim as the best ever, I believe Tony Gonzalez is the best tight end who ever played."
The Falcons wanted to send Gonzalez out with a victory in this dismal season, but it was clear their offensive line didn't get the memo.
Considered championship contenders, the Falcons went from the No. 1 seed in the NFC and 10 yards away from the Super Bowl to last place, all in one season. This was their worst record since going 4-12 under Bobby Petrino and Emmitt Thomas in 2007.
But Gonzalez, who was coaxed out of retirement to make one last run at a Super Bowl, asked that no tears be shed for him.
Forty-eight of his family members and friends were on the field when he ran out of the tunnel for the last time. Falcons owner Arthur Blank presented him with a half-Chiefs, half-Falcons helmet that was signed by Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Blank.
He enjoyed the day -- except for the outcome -- as the Falcons' last-ditch scoring effort was derailed by a botched center snap, a penalty and a final Ryan incompletion.
"It was great," Gonzalez said. "We just weren't able to pull it out. The pregame, during the game, I'm so faltered and thankful that I've been able to be a part of this organization for the (past) five years and, obviously, the 12 years before that in Kansas City."
He did not consider the celebration of his career a distraction.
"It's just about snapping in and snapping out and trying to control those emotions because they were running through me today," Gonzalez said. "I felt like crying at times."
Gonzalez didn't cry, but few would have blamed him if he did. Ryan was continually slammed by the Panthers. With the game on the line, center Joe Hawley's early snap sailed 16 yards past Ryan after he had moved the team within 22 yards of field-goal range with 31 seconds to play.
"I've been on some really good teams, but we weren't able to get over the hump," Gonzalez said. "It's offense, defense and special teams. Then, the ball has to go your way."
The Falcons were beset with injuries along the way and were forced to play a host of first- and second-year players. Eight of their losses were decided by one score. In past seasons under Smith, the Falcons have pulled out those close games, owing a 31-18 record in one-score games during his tenure, which is second best in the league.
All that remains for Gonzalez now is to tabulate his final numbers and await his call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in five years.
He finished his career with 15,127 receiving yards on 1,325 catches and 111 receiving touchdowns, all tops for the tight end position. His reception total is second only to wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Since coming to the Falcons in a trade for a second-round draft pick in 2009, Gonzalez posted 411 catches for 4,187 yards and 35 touchdowns. He didn't score against the Panthers, missing the opportunity to dunk the ball over the crossbar one last time.
"It's amazing," said Gonzalez. "I'm still looking back and saying I can't believe this has happened to me, honestly. When I first got into the league, looking ahead ... it's humbling."
Gonzalez said a turning point in his career arrived in his second season in Kansas City when he dropped 17 passes. He vowed never to drop another ball and became a tireless worker, catching at least 100 balls a day.
"Somebody pinch me because it's been a blast," Gonzalez said.