Tony Gonzalez is open. Well, certainly in the news-conference sense of the word.
On the field, that could be a different proposition. With the Falcons running out of known pass-catching commodities, defenses are getting the idea they should attach themselves to the vintage tight end like ticks on a retriever.
But Gonzalez is open, candid as he feels he can be, when talking about all the spontaneous claptrap that erupted during the team’s off week. You know, that talk about trading him to a contender — for both his sake and the Falcons’. The thinking went that after the 1-4 start, having returned for one more season in Super Bowl-or-bust mode, Gonzalez should be set free before the virus of defeat infects him.
To which Gonzalez responded that he is not now, nor has he ever been, an Italian cruise-ship captain: “There is no way I would even think about jumping ship,” he said.
Nor has he ever read — much less endorsed — the Bobby Petrino handbook on loyalty: “I’m not going to say, ‘Things are bad around here, so I’m outta here,’” Gonzalez said.
He went further on record with the kind of reality-bending thoughts that could get him a post-playing gig on the Sci-Fi Channel: “It’s only four loses. We can go 2-4. Then go 3-4. To constantly, surely climb back into it all we have to do is win. That’s something we are accustomed to doing, something we know we can do.”
That’s what Gonzalez said, and those around him confirm that his actions are aligning with his words.
“He is still working just as hard as he ever has, rallying the team, telling us he believes in this team,” said Levine Toilolo, Gonzalez’s young understudy at tight end.
But what does Nikko make of this mess?
“Every game he’s asking what’s happening, what’s going on down there?” Gonzalez smiled.
“He’s saying the same thing everybody else is thinking: Man you guys are so close but it’s just not happening.”
Gonzalez went through last season saying he was 95 percent sure that it would be his last. It was his 12-year-old son, Nikko, who lives in California, who talked his father into returning for one more last hurrah. The kid foresaw great things for these Falcons. Only, the hurrahs have been few.
And how now does a father answer his son’s questions? “I told him, man, it’s your fault. Just joking though,” Gonzalez said.
Young Nikko’s vision of this team — loaded with an embarrassment of offensive riches, capable of producing the one or two more plays needed to qualify for the Super Bowl — matched that of every other Falcons follower. His faith hardly was naive.
Then all those pieces began to break. Gone is Julio Jones. The extent of injuries to running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Roddy White are impossible to know for certain because of the way teams treat pulled muscles and twisted ankles like military secrets. As of now, Nikko, a wide receiver on his youth team back home, is not an option to fill the breach. But at least he’d bring an impressive pedigree.
As Gonzalez’s wife, October, Tweeted earlier this month: “Does anyone recognize this team from last year? Cuz I don’t.”
Now Gonzalez goes into Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay as Matt Ryan’s only fully healthy, fully proven set of hands. More and more the quarterback has leaned on his 37-year-old tight end, who recorded 12 and 10 receptions the past two games. Since Gonzalez arrived in 2009, he has been the target of about 22 percent of Ryan’s completions. These past two games, that number jumped to 31 percent.
The Bucs may be 0-5, but they can do that math. The Falcons aren’t even disputing that.
“As we evolve into this wide receiver situation, obviously there might be more things we come up with Tony featured as the No. 1 guy. That’s a no-brainer,” Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said.
If you were Ryan, where would your gaze first alight — on Gonzalez or Drew Davis?
“Part of playing quarterback is understanding that you want to get the ball to certain players, but you also want to take what’s there,” Ryan said.
“You have to be able to move on and get the ball to different guys and you got to trust other guys to win when they have one-on-one matchups. With Julio being out we might have to find a different guy to get those one-on-ones, but we still have to trust the fact that they’re going to get it done,” Ryan said.
“Plays are called, and where the ball goes is based on what the defense does. You can’t just hammer it into one guy,” said Koetter, whose temptation has to be exactly that.
This offense was supposed to be so diversified that it would be foolhardy for an opponent to focus solely on one receiver. But Gonzalez is about to feel what it’s like to be the biggest buck at the start of hunting season.
He has begun to get that sensation recently. Those big numbers he put up against New England and the New York Jets did not come without a good deal of hand-to-hand fighting. Especially near the goal line, where teams began to maul Gonzalez with two players before he could get off the line of scrimmage. Such a technique succeeded for the Patriots. The Jets were called twice for holding.
And, yes, it was maddening for a player who has caught more passes than any tight end in history. “It’s frustrating. I’m like a little kid sometimes: That’s not fair. I want to throw a tantrum out there. But that’s how it goes. If they want to do that, though, then somebody else has to step up and make a play,” he said.
“If I can get to 5 yards (downfield) they’re going to call (the penalty). One guy on each side of you, not too much you can do about it. All I can do is try to get to five yards. I think I can do that.”
Gonzalez shrugs off the increasing burden on a 37-year-old to carry an offense. No pressure, he said. Just keep running patterns and catching balls that are thrown his way — same as he has done for 16-plus years.
“When he’s the best of all time and still playing like it, he can handle a lot,” Koetter said.
Wasn’t it supposed to be easier than this? Not that getting to a Super Bowl is ever simple — especially when the starting point is Atlanta. Gonzalez won his first postseason game ever last season. It’s not like he had developed a sense of entitlement. But c’mon, he seemed so due.
He learned young that football has no givens. His rookie season in Kansas City — make that the currently unbeaten Chiefs — he went 13-3 (the same as the Falcons last season). The next year, with expectations soaring, K.C. missed the playoffs.
Honestly, he said, he was taking nothing for granted this time around.
“Nothing is guaranteed. I knew that going into it,” he said. “Obviously, though, (going 1-4) was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought we’d pick right up where we left off last year.”
As for Nikko, his season at least seems to be going in the right direction.
“He had two catches last week, on two corner routes,” Dad said. “I think they’ve tied one game and won everything else.”
To date, the kid has shown his work with the leather ball to be much more promising than that with a crystal one.
A look at the season for Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who returned for one more shot a Super Bowl:
Date; Opponent; Statistics
Sept. 8; New Orleans; 3 catches, 36 yards, 1 touchdown
Sept. 15; St. Louis; 4 catches, 33 yards, no touchdowns
Sept. 22; Miami; 4 catches, 24 yards, no touchdowns
Sept. 29; New England; 12 catches, 149 yards, 2 touchdowns
Oct. 7; New York Jets; 10 catches, 97 yards, no touchdowns