Ray's Replies: Was Tony Gonzalez the best TE ever?

Ray's Replies: Was Tony Gonzalez the best TE ever?
January 24, 2013, 12:15 pm
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Q. I have two questions, both concerning Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez: One, do you think he has played his last game in the NFL? Two, if so, do you think he is the greatest tight end in NFL history?

-Mark C.
Voorhees, N.J.

A. I do think Gonzalez played his last game Sunday in the NFC championship game. There is no doubt that he could come back next season and play well. Even at 36, he is still one of the best conditioned athletes in the NFL. He led Atlanta with 93 receptions this season for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. He is still one of the best tight ends in the league.

But it appears Gonzalez has reached the point where he is ready to move on to the next phase of his life. It is more mental than physical. He can still play; he just doesn’t have the same desire. There is the grind of offseason workouts and minicamps and training camp. He probably doesn’t feel like going through all that again to play a 17th season in the NFL.

After Sunday’s loss, Gonzalez talked about his career in the past tense. He said it was a great ride and he enjoyed it and it was very positive but it was all in the past tense, which told me that it was over. The Falcons may try to convince him to come back, but I think he has already made up his mind. His career is over.

Regarding the second part of your question: Yes, I think Gonzalez is the greatest tight end in league history. Much like quarterbacks, it is hard to compare tight ends from the modern era to the tight ends of the ‘60s and ‘70s, men such as Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Jackie Smith and the Eagles’ Pete Retzlaff.

Back then, the tight end was more of an in-line blocker, almost a third tackle who did not catch as many passes and rarely went deep. Ditka was the first tight end voted into the Hall of Fame, a truly great player, but he averaged just 35 receptions a season for his 12 years with Chicago (1961-66), the Eagles (1967-68) and Dallas (1969-72). Mackey had similar numbers in 10 seasons with the Baltimore Colts and San Diego Chargers.

But when the league changed the rules in 1978 to open up the passing game, it created a new breed of tight end. It opened the door for players like Kellen Winslow and Shannon Sharpe, athletes with speed who could split out like wide receivers and attack the defense vertically. Gonzalez was the best of the new breed and it is really not even a debate.

Gonzalez has 1,242 career receptions, far and away the most for a tight end (Sharpe is second with 815). Indeed, only one player in league history has more total catches and that is the great Jerry Rice. Gonzalez has 14,268 receiving yards and 103 touchdowns. Those would be staggering numbers for any receiver, but they are ridiculous for a tight end.

Gonzalez is also a pioneer of sorts as a basketball player -- he starred at the University of California and scored 23 points against Villanova in his last college game -- who became a star tight end in the NFL. He paved the way for the likes of Antonio Gates (San Diego) and Jimmy Graham (New Orleans), college hoopsters who were signed by NFL teams to play tight end.

The 6-6, 250-pound Gonzalez was blessed with enormous physical gifts but what allowed him to achieve that level of success was his work ethic. From the time he was a rookie, Gonzalez stayed after practice to catch extra passes either from an assistant coach, a ball boy or the Juggs machine. He would catch as many as 200 balls a day after practice. He continued to do it this season when he was already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

Gonzalez is the kind of competitor who could never cut corners. He knows only one way to approach the game and that’s total commitment. If he doesn’t feel mentally prepared to give it his all, he won’t come back. That’s why I think we saw the last of him on Sunday.

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