Whether veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez calls it a career at the end of this season remains to be seen, but what is certain is the impact he continues to have on the NFL record books and the Atlanta Falcons’ success as he leads the team in receiving at age 36.
WHO: Bucs (6-9) at Falcons (13-2).
WHAT: Regular-season finale for both teams.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday.
LINE: OFF (oddsmakers waiting to see how many starters Atlanta rests before setting line since Falcons have No. 1 seed in NFC already clinched).
FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez is still 95 percent sure he will retire at the end of the season.
Just don’t try to pigeonhole the 13-time Pro Bowl tight end into giving more information about his future — no matter how many light years away.
“I see what you’re trying to do,” Gonzalez said with a smiled. “Jedi mind trick.”
Gonzalez and the Atlanta Falcons are trying to stay on task this week.
As the NFC’s No. 1 seed, the Falcons want to end the regular season with a victory Sunday against Tampa Bay and then use next week’s bye to get ready for a divisional round home game the weekend of Jan. 12-13.
Gonzalez said he isn’t letting outside distractions take away from his or the team’s preparation.
“This is why we do what we do, to be in this kind of position,” he said. “It’s important we go out and play well, finish the season strong and take it on to the playoffs. That’s where we’ve got to be at our best, and I feel like our team is getting to that point.”
At 36, Gonzalez continues to make enough big plays that he was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl in four seasons with the Falcons. He’s been the league’s No. 2 receiver since last season and is the most decorated tight end in NFL history, ranking first at his position and sixth all-time with 103 touchdown catches. His 14,227 yards receiving rank seventh all-time.
Gonzalez’s physique, work ethic and preparation have factored into helping him thrive for 16 seasons, the first 12 of which he spent with Kansas City.
Though this week’s Pro Bowl announcement hardly caught him by surprise, Gonzalez indicated that this bid felt special.
“The older you get, the more people start to doubt you,” he said. “Just because it’s human nature. You are getting old, (and) there is no way you can move around like you used to. I’ve been hearing, ‘Oh, he’s lost a step. He’s not as fast as he used to be.’ It’s nice to go out there and play well and tell them, ‘What do you got to say now?’ That’s part of the fun — proving people wrong.”
To Falcons coach Mike Smith, Gonzalez still appears strong and healthy enough to play another two or three seasons and add to his Pro Bowl total.
“He’s beating Father Time,” Smith said. “He’s shutting him out. He’s playing at a very high level right now.”
As it’s been since the Chiefs drafted him 13th overall in 1997, opponents struggle to defend the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Southern California native in man-to-man coverage because linebackers usually lack the speed and defensive backs lack the size to disrupt his routes.
In last week’s win at Detroit, Gonzalez caught just one pass, but that’s mostly because the Lions decided to put two men on him and use their cornerbacks in single coverage against Roddy White and Julio Jones.
White and Jones combined for 15 catches, 224 yards receiving and three touchdowns, big numbers that Gonzalez credits not only to Atlanta’s wideout tandem but also to quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to read coverages accurately and check down to more manageable options before the snap.
Gonzalez believes there’s a good reason the Falcons rank fifth in passing, second in third-down efficiency and fifth in scoring average.
“The most important thing you can have with a quarterback is timing and anticipation,” he said. “He knows where I’m going to go before I go sometimes. And I kind of know what he’s thinking as well and we work off each other, and it’s a beautiful thing when it’s going in the right direction.”
Smith appreciates Gonzalez’s willingness to do whatever coaches ask of him. Such was the case last week when Ryan threw a screen pass to the left side for White, who outran the coverage for a 39-yard touchdown, but not before Gonzalez and left tackle Sam Baker held blocks to create space.
“Tony was the one who got it started, and Sam was cleaning up in the alley,” Smith said. “Once we got those two blocks, Roddy did the rest and did a nice job of running down the sideline.”
For all of Gonzalez’s impressive career numbers, his ability to avoid fumbles has taken on a legend of its own. He hasn’t fumbled since Week 16 of 2006, and the last time he lost a fumble was in Week 5 of 1999 — a span of 217 straight games and 1,126 receptions.
“It probably will get noted for Hall of Fame stuff when they start talking about Tony being inducted,” Smith said. “His statistics are unbelievable. Touchdown catches, number of catches, what he does after he catches the ball. He’s done a great job, and I think a lot of it is the work he does out on the practice field.”
Gonzalez is just pleased that he’s reached Week 17 for what could be the final regular season game of his career.
Winning a Super Bowl is all that matters, particularly for a respected veteran still looking for his first career playoff victory.
Just don’t ask him about coming back next season.
“Let’s finish this year,” he said, “and hopefully get that Super Bowl ring.”