Tony Gonzalez in the Falcons' locker room after the loss to San Francisco. (@HubbuchNYP)It may get lost in the shuffle a bit if the Baltimore Ravens lose the AFC title game to the New England Patriots and Ray Lewis officially retires as well, but we may have just seen the final game for the greatest tight end in NFL history. When the Atlanta Falcons lost the NFC championship game to the San Francisco 49ers by a 28-24 score after holding a 17-0 lead, it brought the question once again to light: Will Tony Gonzalez retire as he has intimated for most of the season?
“It’s probably the last time I’m going to wear that uniform,” an emotional Gonzalez told the team's official site. “I didn’t want to take it off, to tell you the truth. All good things come to an end and, like I said all season long, this is probably my last one. What an unbelievable ride.”
After 16 seasons, over 250 games, and every meaningful record that could possibly be held at his position, it seems that "Gonzo" might hang 'em up, and almost certainly would have done so had the Falcons won the Super Bowl.
“I spoke to [Michael] Strahan about it," Gonzalez said on Thursday about the future Hall-of-Famer, who quit the game after his New York Giants took Super Bowl XLII in a major upset of the New England Patriots. "He said that’s the way you want to do it. That’s every athlete's dream. Any professional athlete out there, it doesn’t matter what sport it is, you would love to win a championship and leave. That’s where I’m at. I know I could still play this game. There is no doubt about it. I can play this game for another three years if I wanted to at a high level.
"There comes a point in your career that I’ve gotten everything that I’ve ever wanted from this game. The only reason I’ve been playing the last couple of years, to tell you the truth, is for an opportunity like this. Now that it’s presented, I feel some closure coming in. I still have some more closure to take care of, though, and that’s obviously winning this weekend and winning if we get to the Super Bowl.”
Most don't want Gonzalez to retire, and for multiple reasons. First of all, the longtime vegan and total health nut hasn't lost a step -- or, if he has, he has become even better at the little things veteran receivers need to learn. Perhaps no NFL player makes more meaningful contested catches in short-yardage situations, and his 2012 numbers -- 93 catches for 930 yards and eight touchdowns -- indicate that he's got as much in the tank as he ever has. The Falcons, as loaded as they are at the skill positions, desperately need the veteran's acumen -- on and off the field. And fans of the game would most definitely miss watching one of the best and classiest people in the league do it the right way.
After the loss to the 49ers, Falcons head coach Mike Smith was looking for all kinds of answers -- he certainly didn't have any regarding Gonzalez's future.
"There are a lot of guys in that locker room who don't feel good right now, but for Tony, it could be the last time he plays," Smith told Fox Sports' Pam Oliver. "The impact he's had on our football team is immeasurable -- not just on the offensive side, but on the defensive side. He's a great player and a super person, and I'm just glad I've had an opportunity to work with him. I've learned a lot from Tony Gonzalez, just watching him and spending time with him."
I got a bit more awareness of Gonzalez's influence on the people who coach him when I attended the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl media conference last Friday. Herm Edwards and Dick Vermeil were the coaches, and both men coached Gonzalez when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs; Vermeil from 2001 through 2005, and Edwards from 2006 through 2008. Both men told me unequivocally that Gonzalez was not only the best player they had coached, but a real favorite from a personal perspective. When I asked Vermeil how happy he was to see Gonzalez finally win a playoff game, the beaming smile said it all.
It took Gonzalez 16 long seasons to finally find himself on the right side of a playoff win. When the Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round last Sunday, it eliminated an 0-5 streak he had carried with him through his 12 years with the Chiefs and four more with the Falcons. In his two playoff games this season, Gonzalez caught 14 passes for 129 yards and two very impressive touchdowns. He could not have done more for a team that seemed so close to the ultimate prize just a few short hours ago.
And that's the real reason I believe Gonzalez will not be done with the game just yet -- the specter of unfinished business. The Falcons were the NFC's one-seed, and as disappointingly as the season ended for them this time, the future is unquestionably bright.
"We’re right there right now," he said Thursday. "We are right at the door and the door is open for us, we just have to push it open a little bit more. That’s where that five percent is, is if we get really, really close and we get past this and getting to the game and we don’t win. Then you’re like, ‘OK, we’re right there. I could come back and maybe get it.’ Looking at history, you can’t chase the Super Bowl. That’s tough.
"It’s so tough to win a Super Bowl in this league. That’s why New England and that organization is so great because it seems like they’re always getting there. It’s not normal to do it year in and year out. You never know what can happen, especially in the NFL because of the injury rate and key player will go down here and there, players coming back for another year. It’s not like basketball where you know you’re going to have all of your superstars back. Stuff happens. People leave or whatever. That’s the last thing I want to do is chase a Super Bowl because we got an opportunity now and hopefully we can get it done now.”
The chase is still on, if Tony Gonzalez still wants it. Anyone who loves the game should hope that he will.