Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is still too busy catching passes to pause and appreciate all he has accomplished. Only one player -- Jerry Rice -- has caught more passes in the NFL than Gonzalez, whose 1,135 catches is 414 behind Rice.
With seven catches in a Falcons’ loss at Houston last Sunday, Gonzalez extended his streak of seasons with at least 60 catches to 13, an NFL record.
He is 189 yards from cracking the top 10 in career receiving yards, has 95 career touchdown catches and is insistent on ignoring Father Time’s effects on his soon-to-be-36-year-old body for as long as he can.
He doesn’t just play tight end; he has redefined it.
“I am very proud of what I’ve done and deeply satisfied, but at the same time I don’t want to look back yet,” said Gonzalez, whose Falcons visit the Panthers today.
“If I look back, I might miss what’s going on now and being able to improve today. During the offseason is when I kind of look back, but, really more so when I retire, that’s when I’ll really take a look at it and say, ‘wow,’ I had a great career.
“But right now I still have something to prove. I’m always trying to challenge myself to be the best player I can be and not let the people say, ‘You’re 35 and you’ve lost a step.’ That kind of motivates me.”
On a Falcons offense that includes quarterback Matt Ryan, rumbling running back Michael Turner and razor-blade dangerous wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones, Gonzalez remains a headache for defenses. In his 15th season, Gonzalez knows how to use his 6-foot, 5-inch, 247-body to play even larger than his dimensions.
He has transformed the tight end position, showing teams what having their own big, quick, multi-dimensional player who can work the middle of the field, mixing muscle with moxie can do. The Panthers have two in Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen.
A former college basketball player at California, Gonzalez can be more dangerous than a wide receiver because of the way he works in traffic or block on running plays. In short-yardage and red-zone situations, Gonzalez has delivered for 15 seasons.
“Where you really have trouble with him is certain situations: third-and-6, third-and-5, third-and-4,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You know there’s a good opportunity the ball is going to him. I watch and some teams on third-and-4 are actually doubling him with a linebacker and a safety. You look in the red zone and you see certain formations where they split him out and try to create a mismatch. Now you have a safety on him or a linebacker extended and you’ll see the ball (go) to Tony.
“Watch him at the 6- or 7-yard line going in, you’ll see he’ll become like a rebounder where he’ll get in position on just the other side of the goal line, positions his body and the ball gets thrown opposite of where the defender is on him. He’s very savvy.”
When the Falcons traded to draft Jones last spring, it brought a focus to their deep threats. But, a season after being the NFC’s top playoff seed with a 13-3 record, Atlanta comes to Charlotte with a 7-5 record and caught in a fight for a playoff spot.
Ryan is coming off his lowest-rated performance in 35 games, Jones has been injured and White leads the league in dropped passes. What seemed to come easily a season ago hasn’t been the same this season.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Gonzalez said. “The way I look at it is sometimes you’ve got to have some luck in this league. The ball has to bounce your way. Last week (at Houston) was the perfect example of it. We had two touchdowns called back for whatever reason and that kills you. You get the turnover and it nullifies it. It’s those type of opportunities we’re not capitalizing on this year.
“I remember last year the ball was going our way all the time. We were winning close games. We were making kicks, getting turnovers ... It makes me optimistic and hopefully I speak for the rest of the team because it shows how good we can be and we are.”