Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez

As the Atlanta Falcons prepare for free agency, there is unfinished business they need to resolve involving future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.

The tight end, who completed his 17th and final season in 2013, has yet to file his retirement papers, according to NFLPA records. Essentially, Gonzalez would still count against the cap as the Falcons prepare for the new league year.

It's just a formality that is certain to be cleared up soon. The Falcons will save $7 million in cap space with the departure of Gonzalez, who would have carried a cap number of $8.75 million into 2014 had he decided to stick around one more year. His base salary would have been $4 million.

Gonzalez cannot go on the team's reserve/retired list until his paperwork is filed. The other option for the Falcons to get Gonzalez off the books is to release him. It might sound crude but, again, it's just a formality.

Not to mention Gonzalez has a $3 million roster bonus due this month, which is more incentive for the Falcons to get the business matter cleared up as soon as possible.

Gonzalez basically cleared up any doubt of a return when he signed on with CBS as an analyst for the 2014 season.

The Falcons can start negotiating with agents of players from other teams starting Saturday. The free-agent signing period begins next Tuesday after 4 p.m.

The salary cap was set at $133 million for the new league year. The $7 million saved with the subtraction of Gonzalez could go a long way for the Falcons as they intend to address offensive and defensive line needs as well as safety concerns.

Now the Atlanta Falcons can officially move forward without Tony Gonzalez.

There was much speculation about the future of the Hall of Fame-bound tight end when Gonzalez recently left open the possibility of a late-season return if the Falcons were in position to contend for the Super Bowl next season. All that talk should be done after Gonzalez took a job as an analyst with CBS Sports.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff has stated numerous times that Gonzalez can’t be replaced. Such is the case when you’re talking about the best to ever play the position.

The Falcons, however, don’t have time to sit around and wish Gonzalez had a few more reps in him. They have to continue to develop Levine Toilolo, a fourth-round draft pick from Stanford who just completed his rookie season. At 6-foot-8, the 265-pound Toilolo has the height and ability to pose a tremendous mismatch for opponents. He has to prove himself to be sure-handed and improve his blocking.

One cannot discount how valuable it was for Toilolo to get most of the practice reps with the first team throughout the 2013 season as Gonzalez nursed a nagging toe injury. And Toilolo made it a point to try to imitate Gonzalez’s daily routine, which showed the 22-year-old was intent on improving.

The Falcons will have to add more bodies at the tight end position, regardless of how quickly Toilolo develops. One name recently mentioned to me from someone outside the organization was Brandon Pettigrew (6-5, 265), a big, physical player from the Detroit Lions who is set to become a free agent. Pettigrew isn’t known for his hands, but he could bring some nastiness to a team in need of an edge on both sides of the ball. It just all depends on Pettigrew’s value on the open market.

Draft-wise, I noticed several Falcons scouts speaking with Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-5, 262) at the Senior Bowl, where he was coached by the Atlanta staff. He’s an intriguing prospect projected to be drafted in third or fourth round. He’ll be worth monitoring at the NFL combine.

Also, the Falcons have a tight end set to reach free agency in Chase Coffman. A knee injury held him back last season, but the Falcons would be wise to re-sign him for depth. People tend to forget Coffman set an NCAA record for tight ends with 247 career receptions at Missouri.

Again, the Falcons won’t be able to replace Gonzalez. But they don’t want to leave themselves in a tight spot, either.
Toward the end of last season, Tony Gonzalez said there was no chance he would be talked into playing one more year.

His tune recently changed, however, when his comments in an ESPN The Magazine feature written by Seth Wickersham surfaced. The tight end seemed to leave the door open to a late-season return in 2014 if the Atlanta Falcons were in position to make a Super Bowl run and called for his help.

"Maybe, if the team is hot in November, 9-2 or something, I could come back for the last two months," Gonzalez said in Wickersham’s piece.

I asked general manager Thomas Dimitroff if the team would leave a spot for Gonzalez if the Falcons were rolling and destined for a deep playoff run.

He seemed to dismiss such a scenario playing out with one simple statement.

"I believe Tony Gonzalez has retired and he’ll have a fantastic career in the media business," Dimitroff said.

Dimitroff has professed his admiration for Gonzalez numerous times, so his words can’t be misinterpreted as a knock on the future Hall of Famer. What it told me was Dimitroff is ready to move forward with the current roster and find a replacement for Gonzalez at tight end without having to deal with a Brett Favre-type back-and-forth thought process.

Plus, Gonzalez said he is looking into a handful of media opportunities. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him end up at Fox Sports, based on his strong relationship with reporter Jay Glazer. Former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, a player I covered in Chicago, joined Fox partly based on his relationship with Glazer.
The variety of topics revealed in Seth Wickersham's ESPN The Magazine piece on Tony Gonzalez -- including the surefire-Hall of Fame-bound tight end's thoughts on Matt Ryan's quarterback status and Gonzalez's apparent desire to be traded to a contender this past season -- created plenty conversation for days, maybe even weeks.

One of the other subjects raised was whether Gonzalez would be enticed to come out of retirement or put it on hold if the Atlanta Falcons are Super Bowl contenders in 2014.

Here is how it was presented in Wickersham's in-depth feature as he followed Gonzalez for the entire 2013 season:
Despite all the drama and disappointment this season, Gonzalez consistently confessed that he isn't so sure about retirement. At dinner with Matt Ryan one night, Gonzalez said, "Maybe, if the team is hot in November, 9-2 or something, I could come back for the last two months."

I posed the exact same scenario to Gonzalez near the end of the season and he said no chance that would happen. Then again, he doesn't have a Super Bowl ring, and one has to wonder if he would truly consider playing again under those circumstances.

Before the final game of this past season, I asked Gonzalez's older brother, Chris, what would happen if a chance of winning that elusive ring presented itself with the Falcons.

"Tony is his own person and his own man, but he's very receptive to certain people's opinions about things," Chris Gonzalez said. "Fortunately, I'm one of those people. I'm frank with him and upfront. But that would be a decision based on how well he's feeling, and I doubt Tony will ever get out of shape. You talk to him at age 60 and he's still going to be in shape.

"What I admire about Tony is that he'll get the family's input . . . When it comes to that point, we'll get together as a family in a roundtable and give an opinion. My opinion at that point will depend on how well he feels. He'll be rested and get out of [training] camp. The thing is, does he really want to come back and do it? You never know. Just because you're 10-0 and have a chance to go to the playoffs doesn't mean anything. How many times has he been on a team that got bounced in the first round?"

There is another factor Chris Gonzalez believes his younger brother should consider under such circumstances.

"Think about his legacy: You don't want to be one of those guys that kept on coming back and all that back and forth," Chris Gonzalez said. "That plays on his emotions as well as the fans. So make up your mind what you're going to do.

"We'll weigh the options out when it comes to that point."

Gonzalez said he and Tony had a discussion about not being overly concerned about winning a Super Bowl.

"We talked about it in-depth: If you're worried about not being able to win a Super Bowl after all you've been able to accomplish in your career, then you have your priorities screwed up, and he agreed," Chris Gonzalez said. "To go down as the best to ever play your position, if unfortunately you didn't win a ring, there are worst things going on in life right now."

Still, it will be interesting to see what happens if the Falcons rebound from their 4-12 implosion and are back in Super Bowl contention next season. Gonzalez will have quite a decision to make, and the Falcons would be better off with him than without. An 18th season probably wouldn't hurt him, especially if it's a shortened one.
videoFor days to come, folks are sure to continue to dissect Tony Gonzalez's words in an ESPN The Magazine piece by senior writer Seth Wickersham, set to hit newsstands Friday.

Gonzalez's comment about Atlanta Falcons teammate Matt Ryan not quite being an elite quarterback grabbed headlines, as some interpreted it as a direct shot at Ryan. But the two are close friends, so one can bet the retiring Gonzalez wasn't trying to insult the guy who threw him the ball for the past five seasons.

"Matt's an excellent quarterback. But he's not elite. He's this close," Gonzalez said as he placed his thumb near his index finger while talking to Wickersham. "He'll get there, but he has some learning to do."

Maybe Gonzalez's words wouldn't have created such a stir had he phrased it in a different manner. A better way to put it might have been to say that Ryan hasn't quite reached the status of players such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, in part because he has yet to win a Super Bowl.

During the regular season, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan essentially said the same thing about Ryan, and it was viewed as a compliment.

"I don't know if he's quite there yet with Brady and Peyton Manning, but he's certainly close," the Jets coach said of Ryan back in October.

So will Ryan be offended by Gonzalez's words? It's highly unlikely, considering how well-respected Ryan is around the Falcons' locker room for keeping calm no matter the situation. This is the same guy who refused to complain publicly about his offensive line despite being the most battered quarterback in the league throughout the 2013 season. One source indicated a few weeks ago that Ryan was a lot more banged up at season's end than he let on, although Ryan said publicly his body felt fine despite the beating. Ryan was sacked 44 times.

Maybe Ryan and Gonzalez will have a discussion today, if they haven't already. But Gonzalez obviously feels Ryan is on the cusp of greatness, as a $100 million quarterback should be.

Now it's up to the Falcons to help Ryan's cause with an improved offensive line to keep him upright and a few more weapons in the passing game, such as a replacement for Gonzalez at tight end and maybe another change-of-pace running back. The return of game-breaking receiver Julio Jones from foot surgery should be a tremendous help to Ryan as the Falcons try to return to Super Bowl contention following a dismal 4-12 season.
Tony Gonzalez didn’t walk into retirement quietly. And maybe he’s not done just yet after all.

The Atlanta Falcons' tight end had plenty to say while shadowed by ESPN the Magazine senior writer Seth Wickersham throughout the 2013 season. The masterful piece will appear on newsstands on Friday, and on the Web next week.

Here are some excerpts:
    Regarding QB Matt Ryan, a close friend: "Matt's an excellent quarterback. But he's not elite. He's this close," says Gonzalez, placing his thumb near his index finger. "He'll get there, but he has some learning to do."

    With the Oct. 29 trade deadline approaching, the Falcons were 2-5. Gonzalez met with coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff. He was careful not to ask for a trade, but he made it clear that he would accept one. Gonzalez told Seth later: "You trade me to a team that needs me, that wants to make a serious run in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. You get something in return for a guy who you know won't be here next year. And the season isn't going anywhere anyway. That's rational." At the trade deadline, Gonzalez sat at a restaurant with his wife and waited to hear which team it would be. When that call never came, he was not happy.

    Despite all the drama and disappointment this season, Gonzalez consistently confessed that he isn't so sure about retirement: At dinner with Ryan one night, Gonzalez said, "Maybe, if the team is hot in November, 9-2 or something, I could come back for the last two months."

NFLN survey/player safety: Falcons

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
Some of the Atlanta Falcons paused when I asked them the question about whether the NFL is committed to player safety.

At the same time, a handful said they would play in the Super Bowl with a concussion.

Safety measures have been an ongoing topic of debate, and the intensity of those discussions heightened after the deaths of former players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson.

I know for a fact that the Falcons, as a whole, lean on the side of caution when it comes to concussions. Head coach Mike Smith was adamant about going through every step of the league's protocol when players such as Thomas DeCoud and Jacquizz Rodgers sustained concussions during the season. Both players missed games due to concussion.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why the majority of players would want to play in the Super Bowl with a concussion. Playing in the game is something not everyone has an opportunity to
do, no matter how many years they play. Just ask Tony Gonzalez.

That being said, any team that would allow the player to make the call in terms of playing in a Super Bowl despite a concussion would be foolish.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez finished close to the top when ESPN polled players about which player they most would like to see in the Super Bowl.

Gonzalez played 17 NFL seasons and never got a chance to hold the Lombardi Trophy. Most figured this season would be his best shot, considering the Falcons made it to the NFC Championship Game the year before.

Last year, Gonzalez decided not to retire with hopes of finally securing an NFL ring. Such wasn’t the case as the Falcons imploded with a 4-12 showing. Gonzalez said he's now retired for good and won't consider a comeback, even if the Falcons are Super Bowl contenders in 2014.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson edged out Gonzalez in the voting. Gonzalez probably would have voted for Peterson too, based on the devastating knee injury Peterson overcame to return to the top of his game.

The one constant between both players is how well liked they are by their peers. Their energy is contagious. They are both cordial with the media as well, if that counts for anything.

In other words, it is hard not to root for those guys to have success. Even opposing players realize it.
ATLANTA -- The sign hanging from Section 116 of the Georgia Dome summed up the feelings of Atlanta Falcons fans throughout the stadium:

"We love you Tony forever."

As Tony Gonzalez exited the field one last time, he blew a kiss toward the crowd, expressing his adoration right back.

The career of the most prolific tight end in NFL history ended with a 21-20 loss to the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers. Regardless of Sunday's outcome, Gonzalez walked away a winner.

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
AP Photo/Dave MartinTony Gonzalez finishes his 17-season NFL career with 15,127 receiving yards, 1,325 receptions and 111 TD catches.
"It was great," the 37-year-old Gonzalez said as he reflected on his final NFL appearance. "Honestly, it went exactly as I thought it would go, except the winning part.

"I'm so flattered and so thankful that I've been able to be a part of this organization for the last five years, and obviously the 12 years before that in Kansas City. My career, it's turned out to be something more than I ever thought and more than I ever dreamed. It's been an unbelievable ride. It's amazing."

Gonzalez has been nothing short of spectacular while missing just two games in 17 seasons. He finishes his career fifth all-time with 15,127 receiving yards to go with 1,325 receptions and 111 touchdowns. And with four catches for 56 yards on Sunday, Gonzalez ended his career with a streak of 211 consecutive games with a reception.

"I can't thank Tony Gonzalez enough for what he has brought to the Atlanta Falcons organization," head coach Mike Smith said. "He has been a great teammate, a great player, and a great mentor to a lot of men that are going to play this game moving forward. There are a lot of lessons you can learn from Tony Gonzalez just by watching him. It has been a pleasure and honor to have the opportunity to coach, in my opinion, the greatest tight end to ever play the game."

The Falcons gave Gonzalez a hero's sendoff. He was the last player to be introduced in pregame warm-ups and the only Falcons captain on the field for the coin toss. Video tributes played throughout the day, and team owner Arthur Blank presented Gonzalez with a half-Falcons, half-Chiefs commemorative helmet at halftime.

Gonzalez had about 40 family members and friends who flew into town for the game, including his older brother, Chris, who looks more like Gonzalez's identical twin, as well as three adopted brothers the Gonzalez family took in from broken homes.

As he marveled over the atmosphere surrounding his younger brother's final game, Chris Gonzalez recalled a recent conversation he had with Tony regarding not winning a Super Bowl.

"When we talked about it in-depth several weeks ago, I told him, 'If you're worried about that you didn't win a Super Bowl after all you've been able to accomplish in your career, then you've got your priorities mixed up.' And he agreed," Chris Gonzalez said. "To go down as the best to ever play the position and if unfortunately you didn't win a ring -- shoot, there are worst things going on in life right now. If you put things in perspective, you've been very fortunate to play all these years."

Tony Gonzalez remembered the conversation with his brother and offered his take.

"The Super Bowl obviously wasn't in my cards, and I'm OK with that," he said. "I hope there's no glitch on my record because of that. And if you think that way, I don't think you know what you're talking about. I really don't because this is the ultimate team sport. I've been on some really good teams, but we weren't able to get over the hump. It's offense, defense and special teams, and then the ball has to go your way. We didn't have that this year. It seems like the horseshoe fell out of our butts."

But the Falcons were lucky to have Gonzalez as long as they did. That's why quarterback Matt Ryan said it will be "weird" to move on without his tight end. That's why Roddy White referred to Gonzalez as the ideal role model.

That's why Mike Smith asked Gonzalez to address the team with some inspiring words Saturday night.

"First of all, I was thankful for that," Gonzalez said. "But my message was learn something from this year. There's a lot of growing you can have when you're in adversity, when you're in a losing situation."

Spoken like a true champion.

Pro Bowl selections: Atlanta Falcons

December, 27, 2013
When the Pro Bowl rosters were announced Friday night, some expected Tony Gonzalez's name to be on the list.

It was not to be.

Gonzalez and the rest of the Atlanta Falcons were shut out under the new format that eliminates having AFC and NFC teams.

The veteran Gonzalez, however, is an alternate for the Jan. 26 game in Hawaii. It is unclear whether he's a first, second, third or fourth alternate.

The tight ends chosen for the Pro Bowl were New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, San Francisco's Vernon Davis, Cleveland's Jordan Cameron, and Denver's Julius Thomas. Graham, Davis, and Thomas are all on postseason-bound teams, meaning any of those three could pull out of the Pro Bowl due to the Super Bowl.

In the past, Gonzalez has been an alternate yet elected not to be added to the roster after someone else pulled out.

Gonzalez, who is set to retire following Sunday's game against Carolina, has been named to 13 Pro Bowls in 17 seasons. He was a Pro Bowler for the Falcons the last three seasons.

The Falcons had five players selected to the Pro Bowl last season: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, William Moore, Thomas DeCoud, and Gonzalez.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Dirk Koetter has gotten a chance to know Tony Gonzalez up close and personal over the past two seasons as the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator.

Naturally, Koetter doesn't want to see the most prolific tight end in NFL history walk away from his offense. But he knows he has to prepare for life without Gonzalez, as the 37-year-old veteran is set to retire following Sunday's game against Carolina.

"There may never be another guy that can get himself open as consistently as that guy," Koetter said of Gonzalez. "Tony has an unbelievable knack for getting himself open, even when coverage says he shouldn't be open. I've never been around a guy like that."

Gonzalez has 172 catches the past two seasons in Koetter's offense with one game left. Koetter reflected on the best of them.

"There are a lot of them," Koetter said. "The one for the touchdown in the 49ers' game last year, the playoff game here. There are a couple of those 20-yard throws down the middle where the linebacker's facing him and has got his hand right in his face and somehow, Tony makes the catch.

"The one at the Redskins last year at the goal line, that was a great one. I mean, he's made a few."

Now going into next season, Koetter will have to orchestrate his offense without the luxury of designing plays around Gonzalez. At least he'll have plenty of tape to show his tight ends on how the position is supposed to be played.

"There's something to that," Koetter said, "but I don't know if you can take a guy who's got an 'S' on his chest underneath there and tell other guys to be like that."

With more than 15,000 career receiving yards and 210 consecutive games with a reception, Gonzalez is truly one of a kind.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – When the Pro Bowl rosters are announced Friday, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith fully expects a familiar name to be a part of the group.

Smith was asked if Tony Gonzalez should be named to his 14th Pro Bowl.

"Absolutely,’’ Smith said of the retiring tight end. "I think Tony’s had a great season. Don’t have to politic for him or campaign for him. I think his merits speak for themselves.’’

The 37-year-old Gonzalez was named to the Pro Bowl the past three seasons with the Falcons. He sarcastically inquired last week about his chances for this year’s game, as personal accolades are never his focus.

Here are the Falcons that are likely to get Pro Bowl consideration, Gonzalez included:
  • Tony Gonzalez, tight end: His 79 receptions are second best in the league among tight ends behind New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (81). Gonzalez leads the Falcons with eight touchdown receptions and has touchdown catches in four consecutive games going into the regular-season finale.
  • William Moore, safety: A 2012 Pro Bowl pick, Moore leads the Falcons with 124 total tackles, is tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles, and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. He also has two fumble recoveries to tie for the team lead.
  • Matt Bosher, punter: His 41-yard net punt average ranks sixth in the NFL. He has placed 24 punts inside the 20-yard line. Plus, Bosher has successfully helped execute three onside kicks, the most successful attempts since Neil Rackers (Arizona) in 2007.
  • Antone Smith, special teams: The diminutive special-teams ace as a gunner leads the Falcons with 10 special-teams tackles despite missing one game with a knee injury.
Luke Kuechly and Tony GonzalezGetty ImagesLuke Kuechly and the Panthers will try to spoil the final game for the Falcons' Tony Gonzalez.

There should be plenty of electricity inside the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons close their season against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It will mark the final time Tony Gonzalez suits up in his No. 88 jersey, the final time the 17-year veteran walks out of the locker room with his teammates, set to do battle.

The Falcons (4-11) are sure to do everything possible to make sure Gonzalez's last NFL game is a memorable one, including a likely tribute of some sort. Could ruining the Panthers' NFC South title chances be a part of the Falcons' festivities? Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Panthers reporter David Newton break down the matchup.

McClure: David, I'm sure the Panthers (11-4) are aware that this is Gonzalez's last NFL game. Earlier in the season, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman exchanged jerseys with him, knowing that it would be the final time he’d see Gonzalez on the field. Which player from Carolina would be most likely to follow Sherman's lead with such a swap?

Newton: I'm going with wide receiver Steve Smith. He has swapped items with a few players already this season and at this stage of his career. Besides, Smith won't need his own jersey; he's doubtful to play because of a sprained knee.

I suspect the Panthers will be more worried about covering Gonzalez than being nostalgic. He lit them up in the first half of the teams' first meeting before they adjusted coverage to shut him down. It's amazing that at 37 years old he's still a player teams have to plan for. Look for him to get a heavy dose of linebacker Luke Kuechly again.

A year ago, a Carolina team with nothing to play for beat Atlanta soundly in Charlotte late in the season, perhaps dulling some of the Falcons' momentum going into the playoffs. Are the Falcons hungry to play the spoiler, or just play out the string?

McClure: I think they're just trying to finish up the season unscathed and build toward next year. Coach Mike Smith has started nearly a full-fledged youth movement. In a Week 15 win over the Washington Redskins, nine players in the starting lineup were either rookies or second-year players. Smith contends that the Falcons aren't worried about draft positioning and are more concerned with winning games. At the same time, I'm sure they don't want to fall out of the top five in the draft order; they stand at No. 6 right now. Whatever the case, Smith's job is secure going into next season.

I know there had been some talk before about Ron Rivera's status, but he has no doubt silenced his critics, correct?

Newton: Rivera has pretty much slammed the door on his critics. If he doesn't get an extension out of this, it will be a shame. I've been really impressed with the way he remained the same during this hot streak to close the season as he was during a 1-3 start. That consistency, that unwillingness to waver from what he believed was the right way to build this team, is why the Panthers are in the position they're in.

He is indeed a players' coach. He doesn't ask anybody to do anything on the field that he wouldn't have done himself as a player. The biggest change since the season began is in his philosophy on fourth down. He has gone for it so many times that he's earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron." But most of that is more calculated than you'd think, and it has a lot to do with believing in what his players can do.

You mentioned Smith being solid in Atlanta, but there obviously needs to be some changes in personnel to shore up that defense during the offseason, right?

McClure: Correct. The first changes I anticipate are among the coaching staff, likely first on the defensive side. Once those coaching changes are made, the Falcons can identify where they are going with their schemes and identify which players make the best fit. Obviously, they need help along the offensive and defensive lines, and having a high draft pick helps the cause. I wouldn't be surprised to see them go after a linebacker in free agency and maybe try to add an elusive running back to the mix. Safety also is an area that needs to be addressed. And if the Falcons aren't fully confident in rookie Levine Toilolo as Gonzalez's replacement, they need to target another tight end.

I think the Panthers showed this year that they can compete with anyone, but what will it take to get them to the next level in terms of consistently being among the NFC's top teams?

Newton: They may be there now, but there are a few pieces that must be addressed after the offseason. Steve Smith isn't getting any younger, and No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell is unsigned. The secondary, despite its rank, could use a shutdown corner. And a decision on re-signing left tackle Jordan Gross must be made.

Otherwise, you have a strong nucleus in 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton at quarterback; Kuechly, the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, at linebacker; and 2013 candidate Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. General manager Dave Gettleman has done a good job of clearing cap room to re-sign key players and add needed pieces. I'd say it's more a matter of fine-tuning at this point.

The boyish smile and wide-eyed expression on Tony Gonzalez's face told the story before he uttered a single word.

Never did the Atlanta Falcons tight end imagine footage still existed from his first NFL game. But in front of him, inside the locker room last week, played the full-color satellite feed of his Aug. 31, 1997, regular-season debut with the Kansas City Chiefs at Denver's Mile High Stadium.

"Look at my face mask," Gonzalez said as he pointed and laughed. "That actually looked cool. People make fun of my face mask now because it's so big and long. But there, I had a normal face mask. I don't even remember that.

"And look how big those pads are."

Gonzalez, drafted 13th overall by the Chiefs in 1997, shared the field that afternoon with established NFL stars John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis and Marcus Allen.

"I feel old," Gonzalez said. "Those guys are old.

"It's great because growing up, especially being a Raiders fan and then playing with Marcus, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, that's Marcus Allen' when I first walked in and saw him. And then you see guys like [Chiefs teammate] Andre 'Bad Moon' Rison. It's unbelievable."

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesTony Gonzalez made his NFL debut in 1997 as a 21-year-old.
Gonzalez, 37, has played for 17 NFL seasons despite a humbling start to his illustrious career. The guy who drew motivation from being labeled a near-bust after a 17-drop second year will witness it all come to an end against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Gonzalez has reiterated his intention to retire despite not winning a Super Bowl ring.

As he approached his 270th and final game, Gonzalez took a few moments to digest the particulars of his very first NFL outing -- a 19-3 loss to the Broncos on the same day Princess Diana died in a car accident.

Gonzalez entered the game four plays into the Chiefs' first series. He was the backup to veteran starter Ted Popson, a blocking tight end who initially played in the World League of American Football.

"I didn't start my whole rookie year," said Gonzalez, who caught a career-low 33 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns in 1997. "Here's what I always tell people: It's a mentality that you have to have in the NFL. It isn't about if you have the athleticism. When they bring you in, you've already shown what you can do athletically.

"But what separates good players from great players or starters from non-starters is a mentality, and I didn't have the right mentality at that time. I just had a lackadaisical approach: just going out to practice and coming in right after practice. I didn't know how to work at that point. Confidence, too. I didn't have the best confidence in the world at that point. I wouldn't have started me, either."

Gonzalez noted that he looked "rather young" sporting his white No. 88 Chiefs road jersey. He wore No. 44 in college and high school.

"When I got to the NFL, they asked me what number I wanted, and I said No. 44, but they told me tight ends are not allowed to have that number," Gonzalez recalled. "So I said, ‘Just double it up for me if you can' and took No. 88. I figured I'd be twice as good as I was."

He turned out even better. The most prolific tight end in league history recently became the fifth player to surpass 15,000 career receiving yards. His first 22 were against the Broncos.

Fast-forwarding through the tape took Gonzalez to the fourth quarter, with two minutes, 18 seconds left in regulation and Denver leading by the final margin. He lined up in an awkward-looking four-point stance on the right side of the line.

"I had a three-point stance all through high school and through the first couple years of college," Gonzalez said. "Then my position coach at Cal, Dan Ferrigno, he came in and changed it to a four-point stance and said it was better for blocking. So I did that for the first two years of my career."

From the stance, Gonzalez had a free release down the seam on second-and-10 from his own 45-yard line. Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac took a five-step drop and fired a back-shoulder pass to Gonzalez, who made a falling, 22-yard grab in front of Broncos All-Pro safety Steve Atwater.

Gonzalez arose from the ground with his teeth sparkling inside his helmet, relishing his first-career catch.

"I smiled because he also was talking trash to me," Gonzalez said of Atwater. "I think he was upset about giving that catch up."

During a break in the action, the NBC broadcast crew of Dick Enberg, Phil Simms, and Paul Maguire discussed how Gonzalez already mastered the art of pushing off.

Gonzalez concurred.

"I think I've always done that, and I still do it," he said. "If you ask any defender in the league, they say I'm the ‘Push-off King,' but it's just creating leverage."

Gonzalez's catch on Atwater was his only reception against the Broncos that day. He played 20 offensive snaps, including 13 in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs would go on to compile the AFC’s best record (13-3) in 1997 before losing in the playoffs to Denver, the eventual Super Bowl champion.

Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Paul Hackett recalled Gonzalez's strengths as a rookie -- and an aspect of his game that needed work.

"I can't tell you what a delight he was to be around from the moment he arrived," Hackett said. "Having been a basketball player, I think his thirst for learning about the ins and outs of playing tight end just captured him.

"We could tell how he could catch the ball immediately. Of course, the blocking became the issue that we were going to have to address."

Gonzalez's first downhill block came against infamous Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski. Gonzalez's first one-on-one pass protection assignment was against six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Neil Smith, and the rookie held his own.

He even doubled as a blocker on the kick-return unit and could be spotted dancing around on the right edge before a fourth-quarter kickoff to teammate Tamarick Vanover.

"I liked special teams back then, honestly," Gonzalez said. "My special-teams coach, believe it or not, called me ‘The Eraser' because whoever they put me on, they never made the play."

Gonzalez impressed his coaches from day one. Hackett talked about how he and head coach Marty Schottenheimer were convinced about their young tight end's unique ability after watching Gonzalez in a Cal-Stanford basketball game before the NFL draft.

"I'm sure they were convinced that I wasn't going to play in the NBA … not the way I played in that game," Gonzalez joked. "They were probably like, ‘At least he's not going to the NBA because he's not very good.'"

There was no doubt about Gonzalez emerging as one of the NFL's greats, at least not in Schottenheimer's eyes.

"I think the thing that was very evident from the start is that you had an outstanding receiver and athlete in a big body," Schottenheimer said last week. "He had great, great hands. And he, of course, had an understanding of the things you had to do subtly to get open."

As he glanced at the video one final time, Gonzalez discussed a regret that has burdened him through the years.

"Marty was great. I loved Marty, and I wish I would have been the player that I have become when I was playing for Marty," Gonzalez said of Schottenheimer. "Marty left after my second year, so he got to see the worst of me. And I always wished I could have played better for him and been the first-round pick they wanted me to be."

The Chiefs may have seen Gonzalez at his "worst" in those first two seasons. But he enters his final game with 1,321 receptions and 111 touchdowns and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. So the NFL saw one of the very best.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons obviously want to send tight end Tony Gonzalez into retirement in style.

While head coach Mike Smith maintains the ultimate goal is to win Sunday's season finale against the Carolina Panthers, Smith understands the significance about it being Gonzalez's final NFL game of a remarkable 17-year run.

"I know it will be a very emotional week for Tony," Smith said. "It will be an emotional week for his teammates as well. Tony's had a great career. He's such a good leader. Guys have been mentored by him; not only by his words, but by his actions.

"That's something that will be on our 'must' this week: We must send Tony out the right way. He deserves it."

The 37-year-old Gonzalez, arguably the most accomplished tight end in NFL history, has made a strong case to make his 14th Pro Bowl with a team-high 79 catches for 803 yards and eight touchdowns. He has a touchdown catch in each of his past four games. Plus Gonzalez hasn't missed any game action this season despite dealing with a nagging toe injury.

Gonzalez is fresh off playing 69 of 72 offensive snaps in Monday night's 34-24 loss at San Francisco. Don’t expect him to take any plays off Sunday despite working on a short week.

Besides, he'll have plenty of time to rest his body after Sunday.

"We want to give him every opportunity to play in this last game, as many snaps as he wants," Smith said. "I'm sure he'll, like always, be a big part of our game plan going in.

"I think the Carolina Panthers will have something to do with how many opportunities that he'll get to touch the football."

In the first meeting against the Panthers, Gonzalez caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown while being defended by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Luke Kuechly.

Come Sunday, Gonzalez will try to extend his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 211.