FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan talked Saturday about what the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez would mean to the team, he brought up how important the veteran's work ethic would be in helping Atlanta's young players.
As if on cue, Gonzalez put that on display. But it wasn't scripted for those around. It was genuine. It was who he is.
|Tony Gonzalez gives the Falcons the one offensive element they were missing. (AP)|
Thud. Set. Thud. Set. Thud.
"Look at him doing that stuff now," Ryan said pointing to his new tight end. "You don't get to the Hall of Fame for nothing."
Gonzalez will get there because he's the all-time leader in receptions by a tight end, but it's that drive and determination that helped get him all those catches. In 12 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Gonzalez was a defensive coordinator's nightmare, a player they had to double.
Even so, he had 916 catches with 76 of those for touchdowns, which should be enough to force the guys who mold the busts in Canton to get to work on his. That's why the Falcons traded a second-round pick in the 2010 draft to land Gonzalez.
For a young team still building to something, that's a steep price. But when you consider that Gonzalez caught 96 passes for a bad offense last season and the Falcons tight ends caught just 19 -- a league low for the position -- it makes sense.
I don't usually condone trading second-round picks for 33-year-old players, but this one I can understand. Gonzalez is a weapon in the middle of the field, which will help Ryan grow, but he's also going to help show the right way for a young team.
"When you come out here and practice and do what the coaches say, that's a "C" grade," Gonzalez said. "That's average. You have to do more. I tell the young guys all the time, not to be fooled by thinking you can do it without working. That might get you a year or two, but then it catches up to you and you fall off.
"I copy the great ones, guys I played with like Will Shields and Priest Holmes. I read a lot of biographies. I want to know Michel Jordan's practice habits. Tiger Woods. You hear stories about Lance Armstrong going over and riding that course and training before the big race. That's how I feel on the football field."
It was weird seeing Gonzalez catching passes from Ryan, but he did plenty of it in the practices I watched. He was diving for passes, getting behind linebackers in front of safeties and beating double coverage.
He looked like a player five years younger.
"He's a huge pickup for us," Ryan said.
When the Falcons made the trade last month, Ryan was in his Atlanta-area home. He knew something was up when his phone was bombarded with text messages.
The first one came from his father. It read: "You guys picked up Tony G."
"I was pumped," Ryan said. "I had seen him play, but the best part is he's better in person."
The two have already formed a bond on the field. They look like a pass-catching combo that has been around for years, and the admiration comes right back at Ryan from Gonzalez.
"I've never been with a guy like that," Gonzalez said. "Never. The way he throws the ball, his leadership qualities. They're special. I've been around a long time played with some good quarterbacks, but he's got it. By the time it's all said and done, he's going to establish himself as one of the top quarterbacks in this league very soon, if not already."
The transition hasn't been all rosy for Gonzalez. How could it be when you leave behind the only NFL team you've ever known? Wanting out was a tough decision for him. The Chiefs were special to him, but they were also coming off a losing season and they're in rebuilding mode with a new coach and a new general manager. Sure Gonzalez could have been back in a Chiefs uniform catching 95 passes again to add to his impressive resume, but he wanted more. Losing does that to a player.
"When you have two or three years left, I want to go out on top," Gonzalez said. "I want to win a Super Bowl. I've never won a playoff game. Everybody knows that. I don't want to be one of those guys who goes down in history as a great player who didn't win a playoff game." Despite his excitement, Gonzalez was cautious when I asked if he felt set free because he still has a soft spot for the Chiefs.
"It wasn't an easy thing to get out of Kansas City," Gonzalez said. "Not at all."
Yet he asked for a trade last season. When it didn't happen, he played out the season and was prepared to go back to Kansas City for the 2009 season. But the Falcons jumped in and made a pre-draft deal that really makes their offense scary.
With receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins outside, Harry Douglas in the slot and running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood playing behind Ryan, the Falcons offense is downright scary with the addition of Gonzalez.
"He's going to take a lot of doubles off Roddy because he commands them," Ryan said. "He's going to make Roddy better. He's going to make Mike better. He's going to make me better. But better yet, he's going to make us better in the Red Zone. He's caught a ton of touchdown passes in the Red Zone."
During Saturday's afternoon practice, Gonzalez noticed a fan wearing his old Kansas City jersey No. 88. He still wears No. 88, and the Falcons wear red, but he said it's weird pulling on a different uniform in practice and will be even tougher when the first game rolls around.
He does have one thing left over from his Chiefs days: A yellow mouthpiece that went with the uniform colors.
"The guys told me I need to get rid of that," Gonzalez said. "But it's going to be weird to put that real uniform on. But at the same time I welcome it. I want to make sure the second-round pick they gave up was worth it. I don't want anyone saying it wasn't."
With his work ethic and those skills it's hard to imagine that will be the case. Gonzalez will win his first playoff game with the Falcons, and he just might help them do more than that.