PREVIEW: Gonzalez ready to ride off into football sunset

Atlanta doesn’t have any postseason motivation, but the Falcons would like to send off tight end Tony Gonzalez on a high note as he wraps up what he says will be his final season. (Reuters)

Atlanta doesn’t have any postseason motivation, but the Falcons would like to send off tight end Tony Gonzalez on a high note as he wraps up what he says will be his final season. (Reuters)

FLOWERY BRANCH — On his next-to-last day of practice, tight end Tony Gonzalez stayed late Thursday.

While several of his younger Falcons teammates had their helmets off and were strolling across the field and into the locker room, the old man, the 37-year-old, was working on the intricacies of running a short 5-yard route, making a fake outside and slamming back inside.

“I’m forcing myself to try to enjoy it because it’s tough,” Gonzalez said about his last few practices.

Unless there’s another one of those un-retirement parties, Gonzalez, who set the standard for his position over the past 17 NFL seasons, is set to play his last game when the Falcons (4-11) face the Carolina Panthers (11-4) at 1 p.m. today at the Georgia Dome.

Why the extra work on a week when no one would blame him for cruising to the locker room early?

“I still want to go out there and give the very best of me that I can,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t want to leave any stone unturned, and that’s always been my approach. That’s not going to change.”

The Falcons are sensing the end is near for Gonzalez, who came out of retirement for one last run at a Super Bowl ring last March.

“You try and approach it like any other week, but we all know that it’s a little bit different,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It will be bittersweet, I’m happy for him that he’s finished this year out. … But you are also sad to see him moving on.

“He’s been such a great player and great teammate. It sure has been a fun ride.”

The Falcons are rallying around Gonzalez, who was acquired in a 2009 trade with the Kansas City Chiefs for a well-spent second-round pick.

“Guys know that we want to send him out with a win,” Ryan said. “We’d love to be able to do that. We’re going to do everything that we can during the week to prepare ourselves to be ready to do that. We’d love to see him play well and go away with the win.”

Before the trade, he already was bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He played 190 games and had 916 catches for 10,940 yards and 76 touchdowns for the Chiefs. In five seasons with the Falcons he has added 79 games, 405 catches, 4,131 yards and 35 touchdowns.

He holds most all of the meaningful tight-end records and helped to popularize the position. The former college basketball player also started a trend of dunking the ball over the goal posts after he scored a touchdown.

Ryan would like to see one more dunk today.

“Just getting him in the end zone some how, some way,” Ryan said. “Seeing him throw the ball over the goal post another time would be a good finish to his career. He hasn’t been dunking as of late. I don’t know what’s been going on. But I hope he can find a way to throw it down one more time.”

In addition to being productive, Gonzalez has showed his teammates several valuable lessons. They’ve all watched him tirelessly work before, during and after practice.

“It just shows what type of person and what type of player that he is,” rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “He’s been doing that for 17 years. That’s unbelievable. He’s a great professional, (and it’s) unbelievable how he carries himself. That’s what I’m going to take from him.”

Rookie tight end Levine Toilolo has shared the tight-end meeting room with Gonzalez this season.

“I’ve just been trying to sit back, watch and just take whatever I can from him these last couple of weeks with him,” Toilolo said.

Wide receiver Roddy White holds out hope for another comeback.

“He’ll be back next year (laughs),” White said. “It’s been good playing with him., I’ll tell you that. He’s always been a pro’s pro. He goes out there every day and is giving out lessons.”

No one has seen Gonzalez slack off this season.

“He approaches each of them the same way, he’s intense,” Ryan said. “He’s focused and he’s excited. He’s been that way for five years since I’ve been around him. His consistency is really impressive.”

Gonzalez insists that this is the end. He’ll hang up his cleats when the the game ends today and head back to southern California. He wants to get into broadcasting and seems like a natural.

“I want people to remember (my consistency),” Gonzalez said. “That is my routine and the way I approached it. That’s what makes you great. The numbers and everything else is a byproduct of your routine.”

Ryan had one last request for Gonzalez.

“I know he’s getting pulled in a lot of different directions for jerseys and helmets and that kind of stuff,” Ryan said. “I just told him to give me his new cellphone (number) when he changes it, so that we can keep in contact. That’s pretty much it.”