Tight end Tony Gonzalez is a surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer. No tight end in the history of the NFL has caught more passes (1,242) or tallied more receiving yards (14,268) than Gonzalez, who ranks second and seventh, respectively of all receivers in the history of the league in those categories.
When Gonzalez officially retires—and it really seems like it is a matter of when not if—it’s going to drastically change the landscape of the Atlanta Falcons offense.
After Sunday’s NFC Championship loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Gonzalez stood at his locker and was truly emotional.
“That’s probably going to be the last time I wear that uniform, or football pads and cleats,” said Gonzalez. “I didn’t want to take it off, tell you the truth. All good things come to an end, and like I said all season long, this is probably my last one.”
Whether you wanted to believe it or not, all season Gonzalez has been preparing everyone for this impending moment. Unless something dramatic happens in the near future, Gonzalez will never suit up in the NFL again.
This is terrible news for fans of the NFL—Gonzalez is still near the top of his game and could easily play for another two to three seasons. It’s even worse news for the Falcons. This offense could become rather pedestrian without Gonzalez in 2013.
Gonzalez, with Roddy White and Julio Jones, was part of Atlanta’s “Big Three,” the “Pick Your Poison” offense that troubled defenses all season. It was impossible to cover all three Falcons threats, and Atlanta used this to pick apart defenses on the way to a 13-3 regular season and a trip to the NFC Championship.
While White and Jones will remain the best one-two wide receiver duo in the NFL without the All-Pro Gonzalez in the mix, defenses will be able to game-plan for Atlanta’s offense.
What does this mean for the Falcons?
That depends on whether or not you believe Harry Douglas is ready to step up and be a 70-plus catch receiver that can not only move the chains, but catch almost anything thrown his way in the end zone.
If you believe in Douglas—and for the record, I do not—the Falcons stand pat and make the necessary changes internally. The new “Big Three” would be White, Jones and Douglas.
But if Douglas isn’t the answer, Atlanta must go out and find a tight end or a wide receiver that can be almost as much of a force as Gonzalez. There are not too many tight ends on the planet who can do what Gonzalez did. That means Atlanta is likely looking for a big wide receiver, either via free agency or through the NFL draft.
Picking where the Falcons do at No. 30 in the first round, it’s not likely they’ll find a receiver to come anywhere close to filling Gonzalez’s shoes, at least not in 2013. That said, general manager Thomas Dimitroff needs to scour the list of free agents who will hit the market upon season’s end.
If Atlanta doesn’t make a move in the offseason to remedy the problem of Gonzalez retiring, the Falcons will take a giant step backward. So will quarterback Matt Ryan, who relies on Gonzalez a ton.
The Falcons thrived in 2012 because Ryan had multiple weapons in the passing attack. With the diminishing status of Atlanta’s run game and a defense that struggled mightily, making sure Ryan has three deadly weapons in the passing game has to be this franchise’s No. 1 offseason goal.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.