ATLANTA — The Tony Rules finally ended. After three weeks of watching his young son, Nikko, play football, reclining with family and friends for Sunday night dinners, maybe with a cocktail or two, taking in West Coast sunsets while letting the cool breezes from the Pacific wash over him, Tony Gonzalez returned to the ugly reality of professional football.
The heat and humidity of an Atlanta summer and collisions with large men.
“Hey, I was working during the week. Working hard,” the Falcons’ tight end said Tuesday. “But it wasn’t like this. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
Thank you. That would be less than genuine.
The Falcons didn’t bend the rules for Gonzalez. They rewrote them. Players sometimes will be excused for a few days from training camp for personal reasons, but not for three weeks. That’s effectively all of camp. But coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff understood Gonzalez could give the Falcons their best chance to win a Super Bowl in the 2013 season. The drop-off to the next tight end on the depth chart seemed like a cliff.
So they did everything but beg, and maybe that, too. And if Gonzalez said, “I’ll only play home games, Dome games and possibly outside if the temperature is at least 70 degrees,” the Falcons would have responded, “Thank you, sir. Can I make you a sandwich?” Or something like that.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. The Falcons allowed Gonzalez to report to training camp, practice for two days, then head back to Los Angeles. They knew he would be gone for three weeks, even if Smith generally was cryptic with his public remarks.
“I don’t want to get into specifics,” he would say. He allowed that Gonzalez “will play in the last two preseason games” — not true; he’ll play Saturday at Tennessee and likely sit out the finale, Smith now says — but the coach never said Gonzalez would be gone for three weeks. It probably was the best way to minimize the chance for public backlash.
Understand, this is an important season for the Falcons. Ripples must be avoided. The Falcons have one season with Gonzalez and who knows how many good ones with Steven Jackson.
Gonzalez acknowledged he was “a little bit” concerned how his time off would be perceived.
“I’d be lying if I said anything different,” he said Tuesday, when he made his first public comments since returning to the team. “But most of those guys totally understood. They knew where I was coming from.”
Referencing quarterback Matt Ryan, who joined him in Huntington Beach, Calif., in early July for a couple of days of catch, he added: “Matt is our leader, and he was OK with it. That was good enough for me right there.”
It’s late August. The Falcons have had 20 practices. Gonzalez has had four. In 2002, he held out all of training camp with Kansas City in a contract dispute and returned the week before the season opener.
“I practiced Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, played Sunday and I had five catches for (87) yards and a touchdown. But I was a little younger back then,” he said.
He was 26, entering his sixth season. He’s 37 now, entering his 17th.
Is it just coincidence the end of his quality family time coincided with the official end of training camp? Probably not. But Gonzalez intentionally left himself three weeks to get ready.
He said he missed the camaraderie. Asked if he ever felt guilty during the three weeks, he said, “Sure, a little bit. Just for my teammates. I felt kind of guilty about it. But I wasn’t going to miss time with my family. If (the Falcons) wanted me to pay (a fine), I told them, ‘I’ll pay you.’ Because it was that important to me. I wasn’t (kidding) people. I was going to retire. I tell people, ‘I did retire for a couple of weeks. I came out of retirement.’”
What will the missed time mean? Maybe little to nothing, assuming he doesn’t pull a hamstring. He didn’t fall out of shape or forget the playbook. But he did miss two exhibitions and 16 practices, three weeks of meetings and meals with teammates, time to be a sounding board for young players who possibly could have benefited from hanging with a Hall of Famer.
It doesn’t make Gonzalez wrong or selfish or any of that. But the suggestion that everybody in the locker room is 100 percent OK with this also seems a little naive. Even in the best circumstances, everybody doesn’t love everybody. There’s also something to be said for leadership, and whether the best players simply should be here from Day 1 to Day Last.
Smith and Dimitroff had to decide whether Gonzalez’s preferential treatment would affect team chemistry. Their obvious conclusion: no. The potential of having Gonzalez back far outweighed the potential of a problem.
“You can’t second-guess any decision that you make as a coach,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s an issue. I don’t think it will ever become an issue. And when you’ve gone to 15 Pro Bowls, I’m going to take that into consideration in the decision-making process.”
So it’s official: Chase Coffman doesn’t qualify for the Tony Rules.
Gonzalez worked out during the three weeks. He caught passes from the Huntington Beach High quarterback. He kept up with the Falcons with recordings of practices on his iPad. He just wasn’t with his teammates in the heat and humidity of Flowery Branch.
Consider it telecommuting. The Falcons consider it a non-issue. The next several weeks will provide confirmation.
FALCONS SEEK PASS RUSHER: On those days when their young defensive ends struggle and the Falcons need some encouragement that they’ll get better, they need only look at the big-name free agent they brought in to help.
“They are a lot better than I was, I can tell you that,” Osi Umenyiora said of the his young teammates. “When I came out I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
That was when Umenyiora was a second-round pick out of Troy. Ten seasons later he has established himself as one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, so maybe one of the Falcons’ inexperienced ends has untapped potential ready to emerge.
The Falcons could use some unexpected production. They had one of the least effective pass rushes in the league last season, ranking 28th of 30 teams in sack percentage.
The Falcons’ pressure on the quarterback would have been much worse without John Abraham. He has departed for Arizona, and now the Falcons will rely on Umenyiora, veteran Kroy Biermann, pass-rushing tackle Jonathan Babineaux and a collection of untested ends.
Among the young linemen are Jonathan Massaquoi, a fifth-round draft pick in 2012 who played 27 defensive snaps as a rookie, and two rookies: Malliciah Goodman (fourth round) and Stansly Maponga (fifth).
“Those guys (Goodman and Maponga) are going to get an opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We like what Jonathan has done. We are going to have a pretty good rotation, I think, at the defensive end. I don’t know that we are going to have a guy that is going to go out there and play 50 snaps, but we are going to have a nice rotation where we can put guys out there and keep them fresh.”
It would be key for the Falcons if they can find a third effective pass rusher to help make up for Abraham’s departure. Abraham’s 10 sacks in 2012 were tied for 12th-most in the league, and his six forced fumbles ranked tied for third.
The NFL statistics website Pro Football Focus also credited Abraham with eight quarterback hits, 36 hurries and seven passes batted on 436 pass rushes. Among defensive ends playing in 4-3 schemes, Abraham’s cumulative totals in those three categories plus sacks (61) ranked tied for seventh with Greg Hardy and ahead of other touted pass rushers such as as Jason Pierre-Paul (59), Julius Peppers (59) and Elvis Dumervil (56).
By contrast, in 422 pass rushes with the Giants last season Umenyiora recorded six sacks, seven hits, 32 hurries and no passes batted down for a cumulative total of 45. Biermann had 395 rushes with three sacks, nine hits, 23 hurries and no passes batted.
Massaquoi, who also played at Troy, figures to see significantly more snaps this season.
“My pass-rush skills have definitely developed,” Massaquoi said. “That goes with any young player in the league. For me, it’s just trying to get better at my craft. As far as the rotation goes, hey, fit me in wherever they need me to fit. Getting in that three or four-man rotation, but my biggest thing is I want to be in there.”
Goodman had nine sacks as a senior at Clemson. He said the transition to the NFL has been tough because of the complex playbook, intense practices and long days in training camp. All of that is in addition to the greater competition.
“Everybody out here is high-caliber,” he said. “You’ve got to be on your game and focus on how you are going to attack guys. You would be surprised at how quick a 320-pound guy can kick back.”
Umenyiora said he tries to reassure the young defensive ends on their bad days that “it’s going to get easier.” Biermann, the Falcons’ fifth-round pick in 2008, said it’s not easy to make the leap from college pass rusher to the NFL.
“Everybody is big; everybody is fast; everybody is strong,” he said. “You’ve really got to get back to the basics. Spend the time and the effort and the work. You’ve got to really work on the details of pass rush, and that’s hands, eyes, coordination, have some moves in mind. You can’t just go out there blind.”