Three games — including a matchup with the Seahawks on Sunday — stand between Gonzalez and a perfect climax to his record-filled career.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The career of the greatest tight end in NFL history — statistically, if not anecdotally — could very well end on Sunday if the Seahawks do what the last three of the Falcons’ playoff opponents have done.
But a Seattle victory would counter the vision that Tony Gonzalez admits he harbors on occasion, of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans while confetti rains down, and then walking away into the sunset.
“If you see yourself there,” Gonzalez mused Thursday, “it can happen.”
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Gonzalez is quick to add that he’s not getting ahead of himself, that he’s focusing intently on the Seahawks and the game at hand. You don’t last 16 years in the NFL without paying heed to the cliché of “one game at a time” (even when that adds up to 254 regular-season games).
Yet for Gonzalez, the games are winding down, and the only hole in his staggering résumé — playoff success — is there to grab or watch slip away forever.
Gonzalez, at the elderly football age of 36, reiterated he is “95 percent” sure he’s retiring after the season. While he’s left himself a small window to change his mind once he consults with his “family and inner circle,” he’s talking like a man on a final mission.
“There is no tomorrow for me,” he said. “There is no saying, ‘You know what? We’ll get ‘em next year.’ “
This has been one of Gonzalez’s finest seasons, and for a 13-time Pro Bowler, that’s saying something. He leads the Falcons with 93 receptions, good for 930 yards, bringing his career total to 1,242 catches (far and away the most for a tight end, and second in NFL annals only to Jerry Rice). There is virtually no tight-end statistic in which he doesn’t hold the record, and veteran Gonzalez watchers believe he looks more energized than he has in many years.
“He’s beating Father Time,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said recently. “He’s shutting him out.”
Smith added Wednesday, “Tony has had an outstanding year. I don’t think it’s any different than his Pro Bowl years he had early in his career. He has a great understanding how to play the tight-end position. In my mind, he’s the best who’s ever played. I know that may be up for argument, but I believe that.”
But there’s still one item left on Gonzalez’s agenda, and it’s the one that’s the subject of his visualization. Never mind the Super Bowl, however. Gonzalez has never won a playoff game, losing three with the Kansas City Chiefs and two with the Falcons. He has said he might have retired a few years ago if he already had his ring.
“You want to go out there and leave your mark,” he said. “Obviously, in the playoffs, it steps up even more, because that’s really where your legacy comes in. What you do in the playoffs is what a majority of people remember.”
His first playoff game came in his rookie season of 1997, when the Chiefs finished 13-3 to draw a first-round bye, just like this year’s Falcons. But John Elway and his Broncos knocked Kansas City out with a 14-10 victory, then went on to win the Super Bowl title that still eludes Gonzalez.
“I’ve said the same thing: If I could have won a Super Bowl in my first year, it wouldn’t have been as sweet as if I could win it my last year,” Gonzalez said.
Smith said Wednesday that “I’m always holding onto the 5 percent” that Gonzalez might come back next year. Center Todd McClure, a 13-year veteran of the Falcons, joked that “I think he still has about five more years in him.”
Or maybe McClure wasn’t joking, because Gonzalez indeed looks as lean and fit as when he entered the league in 1997, the same year as former Seahawk Walter Jones, after playing basketball and football at Cal. He attributes that to clean living — a diet that leans toward the vegan, getting his rest, a fitness regimen, as well as the fact that “most importantly, I’ve been very, very lucky to stay away from any serious injury this year.”
One other thing: Gonzalez has learned how to pace himself during the week, often telling his tight-ends coach, Chris Scelfo, “Do you want it today, or you want it on Sunday?”
Reported Gonzalez with a smile: “He says, ‘I want it on Sunday.’ “
In Baltimore, the Ravens are using Ray Lewis’ pending retirement as emotional impetus in the playoffs. Something similar is happening with the Falcons, though Gonzalez’s status is more open-ended, his motivational appeal more subtle.
“We don’t know how long we have Tony, so we have to take advantage of that,” running back Michael Turner said. “That’s the last thing he’s missing in the great résumé he’s already put together. For us to go out and play hard and play for him, play for each other, it’s a great thing.”
For now, Gonzalez will continue to boggle minds as his feats add up — for instance, not fumbling since 2006 or losing a fumble since 1999. He remains, as teammate Mike Peterson once called him in a Sports Illustrated article, “a mismatch-makin’ machine.”
But the end is near for Tony Gonzalez. It might be Sunday, it might be two Sundays from now, or, in his dreams and visions, the storybook climax will take place on Feb. 3 at the Superdome. It may extend to next year if the tug of the game is too strong and his family gives its blessing for one more go-round.
If so, Gonzalez will keep adding to his records, and his legend, until there truly are no more tomorrows.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry