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The Life

December 6, 2002
ESPN The Magazine

Tony Gonzalez and the Chiefs haggled over a new contract for 18 months. For sure, there were plenty of subplots during the protracted drama. Gonzalez turned down a franchise-record bonus. The Chiefs yanked an offer off the table. Training camp came and went. Yet in the end, it all came down to one simple but significant philosophical divide. Kansas City wanted to compensate Gonzalez like a traditional tight end, the league's lowest-paid position (besides kicker). Across the table, Gonzalez had just one small objection: That position you guys want me to play? Uh, fellas, it doesn't exist anymore.

Tony Gonzalez
Tony's not your father's tight end.
Teams are tossing the ball all over the field to whomever is open: wide receivers, running backs, fullbacks, tight ends. Especially tight ends. And during the passing game's evolution, that's the position that has changed the most. Inch by inch -- from the sure-handed Colt, John Mackey, in the '60s, to Dave Casper's "Ghost to the Post" route with the Raiders in the '70s, to San Diego's Kellen Winslow sneaking underneath coverage and gobbling up yardage after the catch in the '80s "Air Coryell" attack -- tight ends have broken away from their traditional blocking duties at the line of scrimmage to assume a greater role in the passing attack. Like giant mutant wideouts split away from their old blocking buddies, tight ends exploit the one glaring weakness in the ever-popular Cover 2 defense: the vast pockets of real estate down the middle of the field. In Week 1 alone, tight ends hauled in 87 catches and scored 10 TDs.

No one personifies this change like Gonzalez. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged 81 catches, 990 yards and 9 TDs. He's the only tight end to roll off six 100-yard games in a season. "Tony is the guy who can carry the torch for the next generation of tight ends," says Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame TE with the Browns from 1978 to '90.

The key to all this passing is that offensive skill players have become interchangeable parts, and Gonzalez is the NFL's version of a Swiss Army knife. He isn't built like your typical tight end; he's a chiseled 6'4", 250 pounds. He doesn't run like a tight end; he's been clocked at a 4.6 40. He doesn't practice like a tight end; he works out with the receivers in camp. And he doesn't put up stats like a run-of-the-mill tight end. Gonzalez needs only 46 more catches to become the Chiefs' all-time leading receiver. Only two other tight ends -- Shannon Sharpe in Denver and Newsome -- are their team's all-time leading receivers. "I don't look at Gonzalez as a tight end," says Bucs coach Jon Gruden. "I see him as, well, I don't know what the heck he is."

That was the point Gonzalez was making during his contract negotiations. And when he grabbed five balls for 87 yards -- 17.4 ypc -- and a touchdown in the season opener, without any training camp, the Chiefs finally saw the light. The big bang you heard the next week was the sound of Gonzalez breaking the bank as he signed a seven-year, $31M deal with a $10M signing bonus. It is the largest deal ever for a tight end, more than double the 2001 price tag for that position, and only slightly less than what's being paid to premier receivers like the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who got an $11.5M bonus, and last season's AFC pass-catching leader, Denver's Rod Smith, whose bonus was $11M.

"The game, passing the ball, the tight end position, it's all evolved," says Gonzalez, 26. "This is what I kept telling them. And it's why I'm so happy with the kind of deal they finally gave me because it matches what's going on in the game today. It's revolutionary."

Gonzalez wasn't developed like a typical tight end, either. Just a few months before the Chiefs made the Cal football All-America the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft, Gonzalez and current New Jersey Net Jason Kidd led the Bears to the NCAA's Sweet 16. His ability to clear space in traffic, sky for alley-oop passes and yank down rebounds translates so well onto the field that he's made it a permanent part of his workout. He has a court at his house in the KC 'burbs and cross-trains during the off-season against NBA ballers like Baron Davis, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. He considers the workouts so vital that he agreed to refund a portion of his signing bonus to the Chiefs if he ever gets hurt on the hardwood. "Tony is the right guy at the right time for what's going on in the game right now," says Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders.

This kind of mold-breaking allows Dick Vermeil and his staff to use Gonzalez in different roles on almost every down. On successive plays during the same drive, it's not uncommon to see Gonzalez split out in the slot working on a linebacker, seal-blocking an end during a sweep, then flexed out to the sidelines for a deep post like a "Z" receiver. "Tight end never used to be a glamour position until Tony came along," says Chiefs running back Priest Holmes. "Now you've got kids growing up asking to play tight end because it's all about getting around the pigskin."

Against Miami on Sept. 29, he even caught a TD pass after lining up in the backfield. "Success in the NFL is all about creating mismatches," adds Panthers coach John Fox. "And guys like Jeremy Shockey and Tony Gonzalez? These guys don't create mismatches -- they are mismatches."

Of course, Gonzalez rarely sees single coverage anymore. And while his production may be down (he is second on the team in catches, behind Holmes, with 40 for 503 yards and 6 TDs,) all the attention given to Gonzalez has spread out and softened up defenses enough for the Chiefs to be second in the league in scoring and for Holmes to take a run at another NFL rushing title.

Not that the Chiefs haven't gotten their money's worth. Against the Jags in Week 2, Gonzalez skied above double coverage for a poster-quality, 12-yard touchdown pass. Replays showed Gonzalez's hips were above the DB's shoulders -- and the first row of stadium seats.

The next day, in the KC locker room, Gonzalez was reading some mail and revisiting that play for a visitor while simultaneously juggling his year-old son, Nikko, in his arms. As Gonzalez spoke, Nikko twisted and squirmed his way out of his father's clutches until he was free-falling toward the floor. In a flash Gonzalez twisted his body, windmilled his arms and snatched the boy, ever so gently, out of midair using the same soft, sure hands to which the Chiefs had just given $31M.

At that moment the deal seemed like a spectacular bargain.

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This article appears in the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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