FLOWERY BRANCH - It’s been a relatively busy offseason for Tony Gonzalez, and not in a physical sense.
The 37-year-old Falcons tight end says he “can’t complain,” about his shape, despite being the second-oldest guy on the roster. What took up most of his time instead was negotiating a plan with Atlanta head coach Mike Smith to attend practices on a regular occasion while upholding a promise to watch his 12-year-old son, Nikko, begin his own football career this fall.
“There were some obligations I made to my family, more importantly to my son, Nikko, around this time last year,” Gonzalez said. “Those responsibilities are coming up here pretty soon, so I’ll probably head back and hang out with him and do what I told him I was going to do.”
With the agreements solidified, The NFL’s all-time leader in touchdowns and receiving yards among tight ends is back for one final year and his last chance to win his first Super Bowl. He came one game short last year, when the 13-3 Falcons were defeated by the San Francisco 49ers 28-24 in the NFC Championship game.
Gonzalez, who caught for 930 yards and eight touchdowns last season, backed out of his retirement plans in March after his son convinced him to stick around for one final season.
As a result, Gonzalez and Smith elected to work out an agreement that will allow the future of Hall-of-Famer to occasionally miss practices during training camp and visit his son in California. He participated in the first training camp session Thursday, and will also practice today.
“I’ll join the team early — I won’t be showing up a week before the game,” Gonzalez said. “I’ll be out here earlier than that. I’ll be out here — you can be the house on that.”
That kind of plan may not bode well for a younger player between him and his coach. But for a 16-year veteran with more than 14,000 yards and 100 touchdowns to his name, it was well worth having him back on a Falcons team that has serious aspirations for a Super Bowl title in 2013.
“After talking with Tony, we’ve come to a mutual agreement that we’re going to let him honor those commitments with his family,” Smith said. “So there will be some time when he’ll be here in training camp, and there will be some time where he won’t. Those decisions were made prior to him deciding if he would play again.
“We’re glad he’s here. He’s going to be here for a while, then he’s going to be gone, and then he’ll be back. That’s a decision Tony and I had conversations about through this offseason.”
With Gonzalez back, Atlanta is sitting pretty on offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan was able to clear his head of contract talks Thursday, when he agreed to a five-year contract extension worth $103.75 million. He still has his two primary passing options in Julio Jones and Roddy White, of course. On top of that, the Falcons bolstered their running game in March by bringing in versatile veteran back Steven Jackson.
Gonzalez, who has never even played for a Super Bowl, knew he didn’t have look far beyond the parameters of his most recent employer when it came to securing his best chance at a championship.
“We’re surrounded by talent, we added Steven Jackson in the backfield,” Gonzalez said. “Who knows who else they might have in here now that Matt’s deal is done.
“The sky is the limit on what we can do, but we understand that on paper it doesn’t mean anything.”
Atlanta opens the 2013 regular season on the road against divisional foe New Orleans, which could be the Falcons’ biggest threat in an NFC South that has been slated as one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
Gonzalez and company will spend half the season with some uphill battles just to reserve a playoff spot. They had the best record in the NFC last season, but fizzled out one game before the Super Bowl after blowing a 17-point first half lead in the conference championship game.
But Gonzalez doesn’t think the Falcons need to do anything differently this year to push their season one game further.
“Honestly, football is like that,” he said. “It’s always a play here or a play there that can change the dynamic of the game. We need to go out there and do what we did last year. It’s not like something is going to get us over the hump.
We had it last year, and I think it’s better this year.”
If all goes according to plan, Gonzalez will have the curtain call of a lifetime, lifting that much sought-after Lombardi Trophy over his head.
“If we just working hard with the players that we have, and we stay healthy, we’re going to be very tough to stop,” he said.