But the Falcons are mired in a three-game losing streak and ravaged by injuries, so it seems more and more likely that Gonzalez’s farewell season will wind up being a real bummer.
Just don’t go telling him that.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Gonzalez said Thursday, “we’re still in it.”
Looking at the bleak situation through the rosiest of glasses, the future Hall of Famer insisted he has no regrets about tacking on another season to his already brilliant career, and he flatly denied any interest in being traded to a contender — with his previous team, the Kansas City Chiefs, being an obvious source of speculation.
“This is the team I came back for. These are the guys I came back to play with,” Gonzalez said, looking around the Falcons locker room. “I’m enjoying myself: win, lose or draw. Obviously, I would rather win. It makes it a lot more fun. But there’s no way I would even think about jumping ship, because I love playing for this team and I love playing for this city.”
Gonzalez and the Falcons (1-4) began the year with a Super Bowl-or-bust mindset, but a devastating string of injuries have helped send them spiraling to their worst losing streak since 2007.
Four starters have already gone down with season-ending injuries, including Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones. Other key players have missed extensive time, including defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon and running back Steven Jackson. Still more are slowed by nagging ailments, most notably star receiver Roddy White.
But Gonzalez refuses to believe that all hope is lost.
“I’m not there yet,” he said. “Not even close.”
The Falcons, who host winless Tampa Bay on Sunday, are coming off a bye week that gave everyone a chance to assess what they must do to turn things around. It also provided ample time for speculation about whether Gonzalez would really want to stick things out if the losing persisted, especially when the Chiefs are off to a 6-0 start.
He spent a dozen years in Kansas City before signing off on a trade to Atlanta in 2009. Last season, Gonzalez finally got his first playoff win and nearly made it to the Super Bowl, the Falcons coming up 10 yards short of beating San Francisco in the NFC championship game. The thrilling ride prompted a change of heart on his oft-stated plans to retire, luring him back for a 17th season.
Alas, it hasn’t gone as expected.
“I know there’s trade rumors out there,” he said. “I would never go and ask them for a trade. If that’s something they want to do to help their franchise, that’s up to them. But it wouldn’t be coming from me. I came back to play with these guys. I have a great relationship with these guys, and the coaches too. These are guys I will call friends for the rest of my life, so I’m not going to jump ship.”
There’s certainly been no drop-off in productivity for the 37-year-old Gonzalez.
He ranks second on the Falcons and fourth among all NFL tight ends with 33 receptions, accounting for 339 yards and three touchdowns. At this pace, Gonzalez would end his career with a career-best 106 receptions, which is especially impressive when considering the lengths that opposing defenses have gone to in hopes of shutting him down.
Most notably, both New England and the New York Jets employed tight double-teaming in an attempt to keep Gonzalez from even getting off the line, a tactic that is normally used to hold up a speedy player from covering punts.
With Jones (41 receptions) done for the season because of a foot injury, Gonzalez can expect to draw even more attention from the other side of the line — especially with White still struggling to get up to speed after sustaining a high ankle sprain in the preseason.
“If I get double-teamed or get that punt coverage-style gunner defense again, I would hope and expect my teammates to step up and make plays,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve still got some real good players on the offensive side of the football. We’ve still got Matt Ryan throwing the ball.”
Those teammates are fully aware of why Gonzalez came back for one more season.
They still hope to send him out in style.
“Everybody is trying their hardest to make sure we get that done,” said rookie tight end Levine Toilolo, one of Gonzalez’s backups. “We still have a lot of football left to play.”