Tony Gonzalez Back on His Terms and Keeps Falcons in Super Bowl Contention

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Tony Gonzalez Back on His Terms and Keeps Falcons in Super Bowl Contention
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Why come back, Tony Gonzalez?

What do you have left to accomplish? You're already one of the (if not the) greatest tight ends of all time. You helped re-define the position. You have more than enough money than you will ever know what to do with. A little savvy saving and your family will be set for the rest of their lives as well. 

Why come back to a league that has 4,000 of its former players suing because they felt they were misled on the dangers of concussions and that they were pressured (or even forced) to play through injuries that would risk both the quality and length of their lives? Football is a dangerous sport and it's also a young man's game. One hit could send anyone to the sidelines permanently. That same hit could make it awfully difficult to get out of bed in the morning for years afterward. 

So, why come back?

In the end, Gonzalez is coming back for one final season (or maybe not final, we'll find that out next offseason) because he still wants to play football. This isn't a broke player who needs the veteran's minimum to survive. This isn't an aging has-been chasing down a record that some young kid is destined to break anyway. This isn't a sad legacy-kiling jaunt around the league's worst teams trying to latch on before the inevitable cut. 

This is an elite player near the top of his game, long past his supposed prime who happened to be a major piece of the Atlanta Falcons' success in 2012. Oh, and by the way, this is a player who completely overhauled his training and nutrition regimen late in life finding his own personal fountain of youth. 

Gonzalez is coming back because he wants to keep playing football. This is a dangerous proposition for the Falcons' opponents in 2013. 

Last season, Gonzalez ranked second among all NFL tight ends in total receptions. He was also third in receiving yards and tied for third in touchdowns. Gonzalez also continued his role as Matt Ryan's security blanket, leading all tight ends with 65 catches for a first down.

The Falcons obviously want Gonzalez back. Even if they end up drafting Tyler Eifert (TE Notre Dame) or Zach Ertz (TE Stanford) in the first round this April, they can't afford to miss a beat while their rookie acclimates to the NFL. They also can't afford to give up Gonzalez' blocking ability against pass-rushers (still better than most, even if not as good as it used to be) or his ability to find green grass when Matt Ryan is under pressure. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was pressured 19th most among starting quarterbacks in 2012, but his percentage was fifth (51.9 percent)—that's a credit to Ryan and to Gonzalez. With question marks all over the Falcons' offensive line this offseason, the Falcons don't need another at tight end. 

Yes, Gonzalez is no longer part of the Falcons' long-term building plans, but he is as much their "present" as Julio Jones is their future. At some point, the Falcons might want to build a more vertical offense that plays against an aging tight end. That day may come and it might come sooner rather than later, but the Falcons need Gonzalez between now and then. 

In 2013, Gonzalez' return for the Falcons is as big (perhaps bigger) than the San Francisco 49ers' trade for Anquan Boldin. It's as important (probably more so) than the New Orleans Saints bringing in Rob Ryan. For the Falcons, it's likely to be a bigger immediate impact than most (if not all) of their free-agent signings and draft picks. 

All of this, because some itch in Gonzalez' soul still needs to be scratched by the game he has loved for so long. He doesn't need to play but he wants to, and the Falcons are better off for it. 

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.

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