Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) during training camp at the Falcons Training Complex. Photo: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has participated in 17 NFL training camps since he was drafted in 1997, but this season was totally different. He was barely there.
The 13-time Pro-Bowler attended the team’s first two training camp sessions in late July and then left for his home in Southern California for what he called “prior obligations” to his family. One of his biggest obligations: Gonzalez’s son Nikko was beginning his first year of organized football.
“I’m looking forward to being out there and watching him learn how to hit someone in the mouth,” said Gonzalez on July 25 about his son, who’s learning to play both ways as a linebacker on defense and a wide receiver on offense.
Gonzalez, 37, spent last season telling everyone he was “95 percent sure” he would retire after the 2012 campaign. It was his son Nikko that actually convinced Gonzalez to return to the Falcons for one more season. When he and the Falcons were hashing out his return to the team in 2013 head coach Mike Smith said the team decided to allow Gonzalez to honor the family commitments he’d made while contemplating retirement.
That meant Gonzalez left the team after two camp sessions, missed the first two preseason games and returned Sunday, Aug. 18 for the team to break camp.
Gonzalez made it to a grand total of three of the 18 camp sessions. He missed the annual Friday Night Lights scrimmage and two combined practices with the Cincinnati Bengals.
How did he look upon his return Sunday?
“It didn’t look like he missed a step,” Smith said after the team concluded a two-hour session that featured many passes to the returning tight end, including the first two of the afternoon. Quarterback Matt Ryan was obviously happy to have Gonzalez back. The team was anxious to see if there was any rust.
There was not.
Smith downplayed any possible resentment from the rest of the team and said he put enormous thought into the different scenarios surrounding Gonzalez’s absence.
“I believe this,” Smith said. “Any player that I coach that goes to 15 Pro Bowls and has a situation with his family that forces him to miss time, I’ll gladly do it for him. I think our players understand that.
“I’ll sign a contract with any of them right now if they go to 15 Pro Bowls, and they got a situation with their family that they need some time off, I will gladly agree to that.”
Smith’s tongue-in-cheek exaggeration aside — maybe it wasn’t an exaggeration, we’ll have to wait and see if any other Falcons player reaches the career accolades that Gonzalez has — he’s steadfast in his belief that allowing Gonzalez to miss the majority of training camp was a good idea.
Gonzalez is in tip-top shape, possibly the most fit athlete on the Falcons roster. He’s also a workaholic on the practice field, a guy who catches passes before and after practice while most others are headed out or back into the locker room.
It was this work ethic that made it so easy for the Falcons to agree to this unprecedented absence. Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter joked recently that Gonzalez had “already played for 107 years in the league” and felt there should be no concern that Gonzalez would be in shape and ready to play.
After two practices with the team, Gonzalez admitted Tuesday that he was a bit rusty with the X’s and O’s of the scheme on offense, but believes because he’s in such good shape and has been around this offense for going on five years now, he’ll catch up quickly.
“All through camp I was watching all the film,” said Gonzalez, who received daily updates on his iPad. “I got to see every play, all the installations and I was working out a lot.” Gonzalez said he played a lot of basketball to stay in shape and caught passes from his son Nikko’s quarterback at Huntington Beach High School in Huntington Beach, Calif.
The Falcons travel to Nashville on Saturday to play the Tennessee Titans. The plan, according to Smith, is for the starters, including Gonzalez, to play the entire first half and into the third quarter before being shut down. When the starters leave the Titans game, they may not return to the field until the first week of the regular season when Atlanta travels to play the New Orleans Saints.