32 Questions in 32 Days: Atlanta Falcons

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Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez

Aug 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) jogs off the field before the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

As we count down to the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.

Today’s feature team and question?

Atlanta Falcons – Will Tony Gonzalez finally slow down in 2013?

At the time, Tony Gonzalez’ retirement after last season made little sense.

Fresh off of his best year with the Atlanta Falcons Gonzalez declared he was content with to hang up his cleats. One of the greatest tight ends of all time and a future Hall of Famer, Gonzalez had 93 catches for 930 yards, averaging ten yards a haul. He added eight touchdowns and 65 of his catches went for first downs. Even at the age of 36, Gonzo proved he was still wildly productive.

Nevertheless, he decided he had enough and promptly retired after the season. It wasn’t long, however, that whispers surfaced about his true desire to quit, and Gonzalez eventually changed his mind, rejoining Atlanta in the offseason.

It’s easy to understand why he’d want to be a part of the action. The Falcons have one of the best passing offenses in the NFL and Gonzalez has plenty of help surrounding him. It all starts with Matt Ryan, a top quarterback in the league. At wide receiver, Roddy White and Julio Jones form one of the NFL’s best tandems and at the end of the day, those guys just make Gonzalez’ job that much easier.

In addition, with running back Steven Jackson replacing Michael Turner, the hope is that the running game will turn around as well. Jackson and Turner both have about the same amount of mileage on their tires, but the former was more productive last season, averaging .5 more yards per carry while topping 1,000 yards. Jackson has the chance to be a mild upgrade over Turner if he stays healthy.

Now at 37, conventional wisdom says Gonzalez should be slowing down. It’s not just his age, either. Gonzalez has logged an insane number of snaps, having missed only two games in his 16-year career. With 254 games, he’s played more than any other current offensive or defensive player in the NFL – only kickers Adam Vinatieri and Jason Hanson have played in more games … and they’re, well, kickers. The tight end should be getting less and less productive as time goes on. However, not only is he maintaining his All-Pro play, Gonzalez is unbelievably finding ways to get better.

Consider this: Despite playing in 16 games each of the past three seasons, his catches, yards, catches for first downs, and touchdowns have all gone up the past two years. Gonzo has also been targeted a little more and Ryan is relying on him more despite having younger options at his disposal including White and Jones.

Essentially, one can stare at his career stats from year to year and not see even the slightest hint of slowing down. That appeared as if it were happening in 2010 when he posted the lowest numbers since early in his career (70 catches for 656 yards and six touchdowns). However, he rebounded the past two seasons as Ryan has matured and is looking as potent as ever. Gonzalez has had more receptions over the last eight seasons of his career than he had in the first eight and he looks like he could play a few more years.

Besides his obvious talent, the real reason why Gonzalez should continue to produce this year is that the offense isn’t on his shoulders. The stars around him will continue to make life easier than expected and rather than being the focal point of opposing defenses, Gonzo should still be able to go out and grab five or six balls a game simply because there are so many weapons on offense to contend with.

Age may finally catch up to Gonzalez this season as it does all players – but don’t count on it.

Anson Whaley is a freelance writer with more than 16 years of experience. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a current member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA). Mr. Whaley has also been a credentialed member of the media for various events.
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