When Tony Gonzalez told us that he was retiring last season after the Atlanta Falcons' disappointing loss in the NFC Championship game, the only thing that we could possibly imagine luring him back was the chance to help the Falcons take those final two steps to raise the Lombardi Trophy. After all, a 16-year career as the greatest tight end to ever step onto an NFL field deserves exactly that cherry on top, and there didn't seem to be any reason why Atlanta couldn't pull it off this time around.
Of course, as we've seen this year, Gonzalez might wish that he actually retired. Now mired in a miserable 1-4 hole and beset by injuries to key players, the Falcons look like they'll be lucky to finish .500, let alone win a Super Bowl.
The saving grace for Gonzalez is that he's used to it by now.
Mired on underachieving or just flat-out bad Kansas City Chiefs teams for the first 12 seasons of his career, Gonzalez nonetheless established himself not just as the best tight end in the league, but he also utterly revolutionized the position in the same way that Lawrence Taylor did for linebackers.
When Taylor came into the league, linebackers were almost exclusively used as run-stoppers who left the pass rushing to the defensive linemen. But due to his freakish athleticism, he became the first linebacker to focus on attacking the quarterback first and stopping the run second, thus paving the way for future superstar sack masters like Derrick Thomas, Terrell Suggs, and DeMarcus Ware.
Gonzalez utterly revolutionized the tight end position in the same way that Lawrence Taylor did for linebackers.
Similarly, Gonzalez brought an incredible new dimension to the tight end position, the first player to utilize basketball skills in a role that traditionally was reserved for blocking. There had been pass catching threats to play tight end before such as Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Mike Ditka, and John Mackey, but none of them had Gonzalez's unique blend of size (6'5" 250 lbs), speed (4.49 in the 40), and jumping ability (38" vertical).
He was a wide receiver in a tight end's body, making it virtually impossible for any defender on the field to cover him one-on-one, and thus spawning a new breed of tight end that has led to the arrival of players like Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and Rob Gronkowski.
Yet unfortunately for Gonzalez, the Chiefs were rarely able to build a winning team around him, making the playoffs just three times in his 12 years there and bowing out in their first game each time. In the meantime, however, all Gonzalez did was rack up catches and touchdowns at an incredible rate, eventually becoming the most prolific tight end in history.
When he went to Atlanta in 2009 at the age of 33, many assumed that his career was winding down. Sure enough, that was the first time in six years that he failed to reach the 900-yard mark, and the following year saw him post the fewest yards (656) since his second year in the league.
Since then, however, Gonzalez has experienced a rejuvenation of sorts, catching 173 passes for 1,805 yards and 15 touchdowns from 2011-12. And this year, at the age of 37, he's on pace to set a career-high for catches and gain over 1,000 yards for the first time since 2008 (a prospect that seems even more likely due to the injuries to Julio Jones and Roddy White).
It's also worth noting that for all of his involvement in the passing and running games (he still stays in to block when needed), Gonzalez is one of the most durable players in NFL history, missing just two games over his 17-year career.
Given all that, it's not even worth the effort to compare him to other tight ends; it's simply not fair to the rest of them. It's really only worth it to compare him to the most prolific wide receivers in history, and even there he stacks up pretty well.
To date, Gonzalez is second all-time in receptions (trailing only Jerry Rice), sixth in receiving yards (and could realistically climb as high as third by the end of the year), and sixth in receiving TDs. He's also likely to eclipse Tim Brown later this year for the most consecutive seasons with 70+ catches, and Rice for the most ever.
Given numbers like that and the way he revolutionized the position, combined with the seeming hopelessness of the Falcons' current season, there's a new way that we may have to look at Tony Gonzalez: the best player to never win a Super Bowl.
Of course, given the way he's playing, who's to say he won't come back and finally get one in his 18th, 19th, or 20th seasons? Would you want to bet against him?