The NFL has seen a Renaissance at the tight end position this year with the play newcomers such as Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowksi and even some older, more established players such as Jason Witten and Jermichael Finley.
But Tony Gonzalez is the guy who started it all. He is the Godfather of the position.
“That may be the best way to describe him,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Without a doubt, he is one of the greatest tight ends to play the game. He is probably one of the first guys to change the position in terms of his athleticism … He was probably the first one of basketball type players and there have been a handful of followers that have had the success but Tony’s work ethic is unbelievable.”
Graham and Antonio Gates both played basketball in college like Gonzalez did. Heck, so did Kevin Boss, the former Giant, although he never put up the kinds of numbers those former cagers did. So what makes basketball players such good tight ends?
“I think it’s just the position,” said Jake Ballard, who was a top Ohio basketball player before he became a tigh end at Ohio State and eventually the Giants. “You want your tight end to be a big athletic kid and a lot of times those kids are the basketball players in the school too. That just naturally happens … If you take an average-sized basketball player who is 6-6 or 6-5 and you put him on the football field he’s a big athletic guy and he can make plays for you.”
Gonzalez was the first of that mold. He’s the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions as a tight end with 95, which is 19 more than second-place Gates at 76. And he’s second all-time in NFL history in receptions with 1,149. Not among tight ends. That’s all-time, trailing only Jerry Rice.
“It is amazing the three years that we have had him here and how he has mentored guys without saying a word to them,” Smith said. “When you see a guy who is going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer come out on the field 20-30 minutes before to catch balls and work on his route running and the top or stem of his route, it rubs off on everybody and not just the wide receivers and the other guys that catch the football. We have defensive linemen now that are out early working on the skills and traits that they need to improve on. He has had a big influence without having to say a whole lot. It is just his work ethic is unbelievable. Our guys took note of it and have followed right along with him.”
Gonzalez may be getting up in age – he’ll turn 36 next month – but he’s still among the best in the business even with guys like Graham and Gronkowski following in his footsteps. His 80 receptions this season were fourth among tight ends and his seven touchdown catches were tied for fourth most at the position.
“He’s only gotten better with age,” said Giants linebacker Michael Boley, who will likely be charged with covering him on Sunday. “He’s still doing it. He has little tricks of the trade, he knows how to get open, he know how to use leverage against him and that’s what makes him even better.”
Ballard said he was looking at some of Gonzalez’ stats this week and one popped out at him.
“This is his 15th year in the league,” he said. “I mean, 15 years ago I was 9 years old and he was a rookie. That’s just crazy to me that he’s been able to not only play that long but still contribute and dominate the way he has.”