FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez has a hard time believing quarterback Matt Ryan is only entering his second NFL season.
“He’s definitely ahead of the curve,” Gonzalez said of his new Atlanta teammate. “I’m very impressed by him. All the hype, it’s real and it means something when you step out here on the field.”
Gonzalez, the NFL’s career leading tight end, will practice Monday for the first time in full pads since the Falcons traded for him on April 23.
A 12-year veteran with 10 Pro Bowl invitations, Gonzalez doesn’t exactly look forward to the first day of wearing pads every summer. But the chance to play alongside Ryan, The Associated Press 2008 NFL offensive rookie of the year, excited him enough to agree to a trade from Kansas City, the only team he’s played for.
Simply put, Gonzalez considers Ryan the missing link to longtime goals still unaccomplished: Winning a playoff game, a conference championship and a Super Bowl.
Ryan’s ability to read defenses quickly, run the no-huddle and throw accurately separate him in Gonzalez’s eyes.
“He knows exactly where everybody’s going,” Gonzalez said. “He knows where to put that ball, and he works hard. I think that’s really the difference in what a great player is. Somebody that works hard. That’s what separates some guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Those guys are constantly in the (film) room trying to get better, on the field and off the field.”
Ryan knows the addition of Gonzalez won’t just cause fits as opponents try to cover him. His presence will create more chances for Atlanta’s other playmakers.
“I’m starting to develop a little bit of a rapport with him,” Ryan said. “It’s been good so far, and I look forward to more good work with him.”
The only drawback through the Falcons’ first four practices has been Roddy White’s holdout for a new contract. Though the season opener is still six weeks away, Ryan knows the more work White and Gonzalez have with each other, the better off Atlanta will be.
White and running back Michael Turner made their first Pro Bowls last year catching passes and taking handoffs from Ryan. For the Falcons, 2008 marked the first time in their 43-year history that their offense netted 5,700 yards.
More importantly, Ryan’s quick decision-making helped Atlanta go 6-2 in games decided by one score or less. The Falcons finished 11-5, earned an NFC wild-card spot and reclaimed some dominance at the Georgia Dome, where they went 7-1 after combining for a 6-10 home mark the previous two years.
Though coach Mike Smith kept all of his primary assistants on staff after their first season together with Atlanta, he decided to make one subtle change in evaluating personnel.
Position coaches had every returning player write an evaluation of himself and turn it in before the start of camp. For Ryan, the focus became film study that wasn’t necessarily more intense, just more specific.
Ryan’s primary concern now is giving receivers better chances for big gains downfield. Even more enticing is the lure of more opportunities to dip further into coordinator Mike Mularkey’s playbook.
“If I make better decisions throughout the game, it’s going to cause less mistakes,” Ryan said. “You certainly can be more accurate with it and give your receivers a better chance to make plays after they have the ball in their hands. So that’s the focus, and I’m going to continue to work on it.”
For Gonzalez, his mantra of “getting better” seemingly hasn’t changed since Kansas City drafted him 13th overall in 1997.
Now that Ryan is his quarterback, Gonzalez intends to stay as committed to his workout regimen, film study and practice habits as he’s ever been, but a chance to finally win a playoff game is still his top goal.
“I don’t think anything in life — I don’t care how good you are — there’s always more to learn and always thing to know,” Gonzalez said. “I want to make sure I know that playbook front to back and side to side.”