Tony Gonzalez has seen a lot of different things in 15 seasons as one of the best tight ends in football.
When talking about Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton on Wednesday, Gonzalez began to think aloud about his time in the NFL. Newton, at 6-foot-5, 248 pounds, is part of a wave of quarterbacks entering the league with tools once never associated with a quarterback.
The brand of spread football Newton played in college at Auburn is finding its way into the league and this season, the point totals NFL offenses are posting are reminiscent of the college game. Newton's size, speed on his feet and deep arm make him dangerous and show how the college game is influencing the NFL's brand of football.
"You look at the college offenses running the spread offense, which was unheard of back in the day," Gonzalez said. "Now you see college offenses (in the NFL) and they're working. Detroit is a good example of that. They're a spread offense. It's one of those things that you have to adjust to. You can't be a dinosaur and say, 'We're not going to change.' You have to adjust with it and we have to do that."
Atlanta faces Newton and his spread-out Panthers on Sunday and the following Sunday they'll face the high-flying Detroit Lions. The style of play of those two teams use shows the evolution of the game the tight end has played for much of his life.
Even his own position is facing a change he helped usher in. Gonzalez, a two-sport player at California, brought a new athleticsm to a position once considered as little more than an extra offensive lineman. Gonzalez redefined the position and allowed his former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, to make him a downfield threat.
Gonzalez' size allowed him to remain a sturdy blocker on the line, but also an easy third-down and red zone target for his team. That part of Gonzalez' game has stayed in tact since he's arrived in Atlanta. In that time, however, he's watched players like New England's Aaron Hernandez and last week's opponent's tight end, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, make the position more like an extra wide receiver than a safety valve for the quarterback.
Watching the game evolve while he plays in it has been an exciting part of the tight end's career.
"That's the coolest thing about playing this long in the NFL, seeing the evolution of the positions, even the tight end position," he said. "You see it. When I first came in, for a tight end to catch 50 balls was a big deal. Besides Shannon (Sharpe), he would do it and that was it in the league. I remember one year some guy from the NFC caught 37 balls and was in the Pro Bowl. That wouldn't even be looked at these days."
It's one more reason why Gonzalez' career, even at 35, is so awe-inspiring. As the game has changed, so has he. He's kept so many parts of his game in place, but has continued to outwork the opposition to remain relevant and at the top of his class.