FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Five games into his 16th NFL season, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez feels reborn on the football field.
It’s not so much that Gonzalez leads the league with 39 catches. When the year began, Gonzalez was already the NFL’s No. 2-career leading receiver.
What’s making this season special for Gonzalez is the versatility of Atlanta’s offense. With quarterback Matt Ryan thriving in his fifth year, Gonzalez said he can’t imagine how tough it is for opponents to contain the unbeaten Falcons.
“When you play against us, what are you going to do?” he said. “It just adds to the choose-your-poison offense that we want to be, that we strive to be.”
Last week at Washington, Gonzalez caught 13 passes – the second-best game of his career – for 123 yards and one touchdown while the Redskins struggled to cover him while also accounting for Roddy White, Julio Jones and Michael Turner.
That’s not to say the Falcons (5-0) don’t have some issues to work out offensively when Oakland (1-3) visits the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
Atlanta started sluggishly against Carolina and couldn’t solve protection problems that led to seven sacks of Ryan.
Against the Redskins, Ryan underthrew several short routes in the first half. But after Washington took a touchdown lead on Ryan Kerrigan’s interception return early in the second quarter, the Falcons settled down as their quarterback and tight end began to work in concert.
Ryan targeted Gonzalez 14 times. Only one pass fell incomplete.
“It does teach us some resiliency,” Gonzalez said. “It also teaches us that, as we go on – and if we get to where we want to go, especially playoff time – you’re going up against some real good teams. It’s not always going to go the way that you want. It shows good character from our team up to this point, and we’ve got to build off of it.”
Oakland brings a struggling defense to Atlanta. The Raiders rank 25th in total yards, last in third-down efficiency, third worst in scoring and second worst in sacks per pass play, but Gonzalez believes that Oakland will come ready to hand the Falcons their first loss.
“Any team that we play from here on out, as long as we keep doing what we’re doing, they’re going to be gunning for us,” Gonzalez said. “They are going to bring their best, and I expect nothing less from the Raiders. They’re going to be primed to get an upset.”
Though he’s 36, Gonzalez looks to be in excellent health. He has missed just two games since Kansas City drafted him in the first round of 1997, and his production has continued at an unprecedented rate.
He credits a new stretching regimen with making him quicker, and he also added basketball to his offseason activities for the first time in three years. Gonzalez, who played in 82 games with 16 starts at Cal, has enjoyed taking the block move he uses when playing the post in basketball to beating man-to-man coverage on the football field.
“It’s the same move, but maybe now I’m just exploding out there a little bit quicker whereas before it was a little bit slower,” Gonzalez said. “That’s the difference. I was just talking to our strength coach that to be successful in the NFL, for most players, it’s not about how fast I can get from this point to the end of the locker room. It’s about how fast I can get from this point to that point, right there (2 feet apart). It’s that quick.”
It also seems that Gonzalez has learned to compensate and keep his statistics soaring.
He last year moved past Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter to become the league’s second-leading career receiver behind Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. Gonzalez needs one touchdown catch to reach 100 and claim the eighth-best number in NFL history.
“If I had any other goal coming into this year besides getting to the Super Bowl, that was it,” Gonzalez said. “I’m glad I’m coming up to it. Hopefully I get it this week, but if not, I’m sure it will happen sooner or later.”