How many more times will Tony Gonzalez run out of the tunnel? (Getty Images)
Here's an interesting, if slightly frustrating, trend: Hall of Fame-worthy athletes retiring when they still have plenty of gas in the tank.
Just weeks after the Braves' Chipper Jones hung up his spikes once and for all even after a productive final season, fellow Atlanta jock Tony Gonzalez is insisting this is his final season. This despite ranking among the top five tight ends in most major statistical categories, including receptions, touchdowns and yards per game.
"This is probably my last year," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. "The way I am looking for it, I am preparing for this to be my last year ... I keep telling everybody the number I'm giving on it is 95 percent sure. There is no doubt I could keep playing for a couple more years at a pretty high level but it's just almost that time for me. I see the window closing, and hopefully it makes the choice easy if we go out and win a Super Bowl this year and I can ride off into the sunset."
That's always the best way to go out, and Gonzalez is an almost surefire Hall of Famer, even if he hasn't always had the best quarterbacks throwing him the ball, particularly during some of the lean years in Kansas City. "It was frustrating at times because you look around the league and see other tight ends doing some big things with these great quarterbacks," he says. "That's one thing [I] always mess with Shannon Sharpe about because he tells me he's the best tight end to ever play the game. In hindsight, you had John Elway [almost] your whole career though. It's definitely a luxury I wish I would have had."
He's got Matt Ryan throwing his way now, a guy who's just a notch below the Brady/Brees/Rodgers trifecta, and that's the kind of connection that can make a guy very happy indeed: "If I had a guy like Matt for my whole career, shoot, the numbers I would have been able to put up, they would have probably been even more." Gonzalez was quick to note that he wasn't taking a shot at Kansas City; he's made no secret of his affection for the city or its fans, and has said he'll consider himself part of the Chiefs family no matter where his career takes him.
Statistical sidelight: Gonzalez needs just four more catches to total 50 for the season, the 15th straight year he's hit that mark. That's a product of his own talent, obviously, but also the system in which he's now thriving.
The Falcons' offensive options, between Michael Turner on the ground and Julio Jones and Roddy White through the air, have allowed Gonzalez to thrive in single coverage and mismatches. And for that reason, Atlanta fans would probably forgive him a rescinded retirement or two.
Of course, even a perfect team has to have something to rail about, and for Gonzalez, it's that perpetual burr under the saddle: no respect. "Is the national media making a big deal about us like they would if it was Philly, Green Bay or New England? No, they're not," Gonzalez told USA Today. "We played Philly and beat them. And Philly was on TV all week." But, of course, there's more at stake here: "Our goals are bigger than just getting national media attention. They'll recognize us if we go where we want to go. I've daydreamed about raising that Lombardi Trophy. I can see it in my mind."
He's been here before; his Chiefs won their first nine games in 2003 en route to a playoff loss at the hands of Peyton Manning's Colts. And he knows just how woeful Atlanta has been in the postseason, with no wins since Michael Vick left town and no offensive points scored last year in their loss to the Giants. Still, he's got hope and a talented QB slinging him the ball, and right about now that's more than enough.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-