I’m not buying the notion that Tony Gonzalez’s return to football in 2013 is all about a $7 million cash grab.
Now, I'm not doubting the report from Yahoo! Sports' Mike Silver—a fantastically credible source on the subject matter—who cited multiple Atlanta Falcons’ sources saying Gonzalez would return to play for the Falcons next season for $7 million and the option to skip all or most of training camp.
"He will come back if they pay him $7 million and he doesn't have to do training camp," said one Falcons player familiar with Gonzalez's thinking.
Another team source added, "If we offer him the money, he'll most likely be back for one more. He'll most likely be looking to miss training camp, though."
I also don't doubt that Silver’s sources made those statements or that they are accurate.
My point is, if Gonzalez returns to the Falcons in 2013, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith did more than just open the checkbook and give the best tight end of all time a hall pass until Week 1.
The Falcons must convince Gonzalez that they are Super Bowl-bound
At this point in his career, Gonzalez cares about one professional goal: playing in a Super Bowl.
Of course, adding to 14,268 receiving yards (seventh in NFL history among all receivers, first among tight ends) and 1,242 receptions (second in NFL history behind Jerry Rice) would make Gonzalez happy. But that’s not what’s going to get him out of bed every morning.
Gonzalez desperately wants the chance at a Super Bowl ring, and he’s not going to return to the Falcons unless Dimitroff and Smith convince him that the team’s chances in 2013 are better than they were in 2012, when the Falcons fell 10 yards shy of a trip to New Orleans.
If Gonzalez signs for 2013, the Falcons are likely gearing up to make their roster one of the best in football.
The Falcons will have to allow Gonzalez personal time during training camp
With apologies to a handful of Falcons who work incredibly hard in the weight room and on the practice field, there isn’t a player on the Atlanta roster that is in better shape than Gonzalez.
Gonzalez isn’t contemplating retirement because his body can’t handle another season. He’s on record saying he could play two, maybe three more years with the way Smith handles his veterans leading up to game day; the graybeards (Smith’s over-30 club) miss Wednesday practices to keep their bodies fresh throughout the season.
The reason Gonzalez wants to hang up his cleats is because he’s ready to be a family guy and move on to future endeavors, namely his all-natural line of nutritional supplements (All-Pro Science) and possibly a career in sports media.
The Falcons are going to have to get used to Gonzalez spending time in August with his family in California instead of his family in Flowery Branch, Ga.
And that should not be a problem. As his team-leading 93 receptions last year are proof, Gonzalez and quarterback Matt Ryan are in sync. Yes, the quarterback and tight end, along with the help of wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, will have to spend some time shaking off the offseason dust, but that adjustment period will be brief.
Gonzalez is going to have to show up to learn the new offensive installations Dirk Koetter has planned, but other than that, his presence isn’t required.
The Falcons must reward Gonzalez with a reasonable pay raise
With a strong desire to do other things with his life, the Falcons are going to have to pay Gonzalez what he's worth. While making a bid at a Super Bowl has to be his biggest driving force, the money is obviously still an important factor.
Don’t expect Gonzalez to break the Falcons’ bank, though. Financially hamstringing the Falcons so they can’t make the team around him better would be counterintuitive. That said, he should still get a raise from 2012.
This might be the perfect time to mention the impending contract negotiations with Ryan, who will become a free agent after the 2013 season if the Falcons don’t lock him up to a long-term deal.
If Ryan wants to throw passes to Gonzalez for another season—and we all know that’s the case—wouldn’t now be a great time to structure that new contract to give the Falcons a little extra cap space in 2013?
Ryan's representatives and the Falcons front office should be smart enough to structure a deal to make bringing Gonzalez back a possibility.