FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons have some big holes at the start of free agency. Tight end isn’t one of them.
Tony Gonzalez announced Tuesday he is returning for another year after his near-retirement, a move that has coach Mike Smith smiling.
“I can assure you we’re a lot better football team this afternoon than we were this morning,” Smith said soon after Gonzalez announced on his Twitter feed he will return to the Falcons for the 2013 season.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said the new contract for Gonzalez “is not done but it will be done quickly.”
Gonzalez decided “to give it one more shot” after talking with his family.
“Being part of such a great team and organization was too much to pass up,” Gonzalez said in a statement released by the team. “I would also like to say thank you to all of the fans for their support over the last several weeks.”
Gonzalez said during the season he was 95 percent sure he would retire after the 2012 season. His productive season made it difficult to stick with the retirement plan.
The future Hall of Famer, who turned 37 in February, led the Falcons with 93 catches for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. Each total set a high for his four seasons in Atlanta. He added 14 catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s two playoff games.
“I know Tony had said he was 95 percent as the season started,” Smith said. “We were holding out on that 5 percent and we got it.
“Tony has been an integral part of our football teams for the last four years and we’re just glad we have him back. Free agency opened what, 35 seconds ago? We got a good jump on it.”
The announcement by Gonzalez drew quick approval from quarterback Matt Ryan, who tweeted “Welcome back.”
Dimitroff said the decision from Gonzalez allows the team to resume efforts to bring back more of its free agents.
Among the players who became free agents on Tuesday are left tackle Sam Baker, cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Christopher Owens, defensive tackle Vance Walker, fullback Mike Cox and defensive end Lawrence Sidbury.
“We talked from the very beginning about re-signing our players versus going out and going hog-wild in free agency,” Dimitroff said. “I believe with having Tony signed soon and agreeing to terms here we can continue to focus on other areas and some of the players we still need to sign from our present roster.”
The Falcons already have announced agreements to re-sign strong safety William Moore and right guard Garrett Reynolds.
The Falcons released running back Michael Turner, cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive end John Abraham on March 1, leaving the team without its leading rusher and top pass-rusher.
Longtime starting center Todd McClure, 36, also became a free agent on Tuesday and appears to be on the verge of retiring. McClure’s agent, Rick Smith, would not comment on the center’s plans.
Dimitroff confirmed retirement has been discussed with McClure.
“We talked about this recently that we wanted Todd to announce his own retirement,” Dimitroff said.
Gonzalez has more catches, touchdown catches, yards receiving, 100-yard games and Pro Bowl appearances than any tight end in NFL history. Only Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice has more catches.
Gonzalez, who played his first 12 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, is a 13-time Pro Bowl selection.
The Falcons were 13-3 last season and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Gonzalez tweeted the 2013 team has “a great shot” to reach the Super Bowl.
“I think in Tony’s mind from what I read from reports from him is that he felt like there was some unfinished business,” Smith said. “I think we all feel that way.”
If Gonzalez had retired, the Falcons might have made tight end a top priority in free agency or the NFL Draft. Smith said neither option would have provided a true replacement for Gonzalez.
“I think it would be an understatement to say it would be hard to replace Tony with someone in the draft or free agency,” Smith said. “He’s been such an integral part of our success the last four years. He has a great chemistry with Matt and the rest of our leaders.”
Smith, who frequently allows veterans 30 and older a break during training camp, said he talked with Gonzalez about having time away from the team.
“I want to make one thing clear: Tony is not a guy who wants to miss training camp,” Smith said. “Tony is a team player. He has made some personal commitments to his family. We’ve talked about working with him just like we’ve worked with other guys on our squad in terms of allowing them in certain situations to take care of their personal business. We’ll do that with Tony as well.”