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Tony Gonzalez, In 16th Season, As Productive As Ever For Falcons
ASHBURN – Ryan Kerrigan remembered watching future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez use his big body and his sure hands to make catch after catch and pile up yards.
On Sunday, Kerrigan will try to stop him from doing so.
“It’s kind of crazy studying him now because I watched him growing up, and now I’m playing against him,” said Kerrigan, the Washington Redskins’ outside linebacker. “He’s still playing at a Pro Bowl level, playing at a Hall of Fame level, and he’s really making [quarterback] Matt Ryan’s job that much easier.”
Gonzalez figured his career was coming to an end three years ago when he asked Kansas City, the team that drafted him in the first round in 1997, to trade him to a Super Bowl contender.
Picked up by Atlanta, the 6-foot-5, 247-pound tight end has been as productive as ever, and through four games he has 26 catches for 265 yards and three touchdowns.
Kerrigan has been tasked with covering several of the league’s marquee tight ends over his first 20 games, including New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. Now he’ll have to stop a legend.
“He’s so big, he kind of can just walk people off, and he has such good hands that he doesn’t need a lot of space to make the catch,” Kerrigan said. “The way he uses his body really helps him out a lot.”
Gonzalez holds the NFL record for receptions (1,175), receiving yards (13,603) and touchdowns (98) by a tight end. He has been invited to the Pro Bowl in 12 of the last 13 seasons, missing out on the game held in 2010.
He caught nine passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ 27-3 victory at San Diego on Sept. 23, taking advantage of the Chargers’ attempt to shut down receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. And last week, in a 30-28 victory over Carolina, he caught five passes for 51 yards while delivering the key block that sprung running back Michael Turner for a 60-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
“That guy’s a heck of a football player,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “I know his position coach really well, Chris Scelfo, and he tells me he’s the real deal on and off the field. He’s the ultimate football player. He said he has a great understanding of the game, a great love for the game, and he said he’s the best he’s been around.”
That was the impression left on Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who noticed that some of Gonzalez’s work habits – including his desire to catch extra balls on the sidelines during practice, not just before it – have affected his teammates.
“It started to trickle down to other wide receivers,” Smith said. “Then you look out there and there’s defensive linemen hitting the sled before practice starts, getting out there early, working on their trade. When you get a guy like that, you should tell your plays, ‘Hey, just do what he does.’”
Ryan, who arrived a year before Gonzalez was acquired via trade, said the tight end has been a big influence on him as well.
“I really think he’s one of the true professionals that knows what it takes to get himself prepared week-in and week-out,” Ryan said. “He’s so consistent day to day in terms of his routine and what he does. I think that shows up week to week when he goes out and plays because he’s probably the most consistent player we have.”
Gonzalez signed a one-year contract worth $7 million in January and said in July he was fairly certain this could be his last season. With a 4-0 start, he may have his best chance yet of reaching that elusive Super Bowl.
“We just have to keep playing it one game at a time, and I think [Smith] does a great job with that,” Gonzalez told reporters in Atlanta on Thursday. “He’s definitely reiterating day in and day out that we have to stay hungry – and we are. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. … We have to go out there and play better than we did last week, and we have to make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves.”