Matt Ryan made it clear during his Tuesday press conference as an absence on the Falcons roster was pointed out: There is no such thing as replacing Tony Gonzalez.
Not in 2014. Not ever.
The future Hall-of-Famer announced his retirement in 2013 and is moving on to a career in television as he leaves a storied football legacy behind him — and a glaring hole in the Falcons roster. The Falcons drafted Levine Toilolo — a 6-foot-8 towering tight end out of Stanford — in the fourth round last year with the hopes that he could carry the torch at the position in the future.
But the expectation for the young tight end has never been, nor ever will, be to do what Gonzalez did during his career.
The Falcons are back at the branch for voluntary workouts that began Monday morning. Head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan addressed the media at a press conference on Tuesday.
"We don't need him to be Tony," Ryan said. "We need him to be the best Levine Toilolo he can be."
In just less than a year since he was drafted by the Falcons, Toilolo seems well on his way to being just that. Ryan doesn't mince words often, and if he says it, he means it. When talking about Toilolo on Tuesday, Ryan could have stuck with the talking points and wrapped up a short sound byte that would have sufficed for the question of how important it is this offseason for the two to further their on-field relationship.
Instead, Ryan praised the work Toilolo has done since he arrived in Flowery Branch last year and how high the ceiling appears to be for him.
"Levine's been in here for a couple weeks prior to us starting (voluntary workouts), and that's been a good thing for us," Ryan said. "I think he learned so much from Tony, though, the past two years — just the way that he prepares, taking care of him body. I think Levine looks as good as he has since he's been here. I think he's put on a little bit of weight and put on weight in the right spot, which is good."
Ryan's comments were similar to those of another player who doesn't tend to beat around the bush or oversell a quote just to sound good: Those of Gonzalez himself.
In October of 2013, Gonzalez was asked about the then-rookie tight end and his comments were strong when it came to his opinion of where Toilolo was at the early stage of his career:
"The difference between a good player and an average player in the NFL is the player that can learn from his mistakes, that doesn't repeat the same mistake twice, and that's what Levine is," Gonzalez said. "He's done a really nice job of making those mistakes — which we all do, especially rookies — and then not doing it again. That's how you keep improving. The sky's the limit with him."
The path to reaching his potential started last year, with his work under Gonzalez and with Ryan — who pointed out that he worked often with Toilolo because of Gonzalez's limited practice time during his final season — but the next steps need to happen now.
Ryan said Tuesday the dialogue between he and Toilolo started as soon as the 2013 season ended and has continued since. The months leading up to the 2014 season, Ryan said, will be critical toward having a strong understanding of each other once to games start to count.
"I got to get a lot of work with Levine in practice situations during training camp last year and I think that helped him have success in his rookie year and I think that's going to help us heading into Year 2," Ryan said. "We're so much further along than we were at the beginning of training camp last year, so I'm fired up about that."