I don't think Atlanta Falcons fans knew quite what they were getting when Tony Gonzalez arrived in town.
Sure, they knew about the gaudy stats the future Hall of Fame tight end put up and the role he played on offense in Kansas City was as high profile as it gets. Did anyone realize what a truly outstanding football player he was? A guy as committed to working hard to find the excellence desired on the football as anyone else in the game?
No one's going to call Gonzalez old, but his age is on record and yet he does things to make every young player in the game drop their jaws in awe. He uses the constant talk of his age as motivation to continue to find new ways to get better. Much like NBA great Michael Jordan found new ways to adapt his game to his age and still abuse opponents, Gonzalez is doing the same.
"I honestly feel better athletically, especially over the last couple of years," he said on Wednesday. "I switched my whole workout this offseason to be more explosive, because I know I'm going to hear it, just because of my age, not because of my performance, people will always say, 'Well, you're 35.' If I do come back, I'll be 36 and they'll say you've got to start slowing down one day. For me, I feel really good out there. I give credit to (tight ends) coach (Chris) Scelfo for getting me prepared out there. The game slows down the longer you play."
Gonzalez' work ethic stands out to even the casual observer at any Falcons practice. His repetition and routines are designed to make every part of the game burned into the motions of his muscles. Even though he's the best ever at his position, he still tries to outwork everyone. That translates to gameday in plays like last Sunday's outstanding one-handed touchdown grab in the second quarter to give the Falcons a four-point lead.
The tight end has been the focal point of Atlanta's offense so far this season as opponents work to take out other Falcons weapons on offense. So far he's among the league leaders at his position in yards receiving and touchdowns. His two touchdown performance against the Eagles may go down as one of his all-time great games, with or without the highlight-reel catch.
"I can't say anything but 'wow' about those catches," head coach Mike Smith said after Sunday's game. "That will be one that you'll be seeing for a long time; the one-handed catch down in the end zone towards our tunnel. And then he had the other catch down in the redzone as well. Tony was on fire. He and Matt (Ryan) were in sync."
The connection between quarterback and tight end has developed over the three seasons that Gonzalez' has been in Atlanta. Ryan has matured in the league with the tight end at his side, in his ear sharing offensive secrets and providing a safety net on the field when things break down. The quarterback has a trust in Gonzalez that only a Hall of Famer earns.
"When you work with him in practice and you talk to him in these meetings, he tells me all the time 'If I get this guy in this position, just put it up there and I'll come down with it,'" Ryan said Wednesday. "More often than not, he does that. He's a special player. I'm certainly glad we have him."
Ryan said he sometimes feels he can just throw it up and No. 88 will come down with it. Gonzalez describes himself as the old guy just continuing to try to outwork his opponents and help his team win ball games.
"You become a zen master, I guess," Gonzalez said with a laugh. "That whole karate guy thing, he's usually the toughest one. Not the young guys; it's usually the guy with the long, gray beard because he's been around it, he's seen it all. That's kind of the way I feel about it when I'm out there on that field."
He goes on to explain that his use of head fakes, angles on the field and knowledge of coverages have given his game new life. No longer can he rely strictly on superior athletic ability alone, although most will say he's still in better shape than 90 percent of the players in the league. The zen master of the Falcons uses every tool in his bag of tricks to not only stay in the league but make a significant impact at the same time.
He may never admit when he's lost a step and the beauty of the great player that is Tony Gonzalez is that it's unlikely that anyone will ever know. When he goes out, he'll still go out as one of the best. Ryan and the rest of the Falcons are hoping he's going out with some extra hardware as well. The way he's playing right now, he'll have ensured he's earned it.