NFL - Free Agent Signing - Tony Gonzalez Returns to the Falcons
"Ninety-five percent," five less than 100 percent for those counting, always gave the Atlanta Falcons hope. That hope turned into elation on Tuesday when Tony Gonzalez, who repeatedly said throughout the 2012 campaign that retirement was a "95 percent" certainty, expressed his intentions to return to the team for one more season.
How will Gonzalez' return impact the Falcons and the rest of their high-powered offense? Let us count the ways. First, of course, it is huge for quarterback Matt Ryan in terms of both his fantasy stock and his quest to reach the game's elite at the premier position in football. Ninety-three of Ryan's 422 regular-season completed passes in 2012 went to Gonzalez, as did eight of his 32 touchdowns. Ryan converted 75 percent of his targeted passes at Gonzalez, a considerably greater percentage than his overall completion percentage (68.6, which was the best mark of his five-year-career). In four seasons together in Atlanta, Ryan and Gonzalez have hooked up on 326 passes for 3328 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Gonzalez will naturally snag at least a few touchdowns that otherwise would be left for wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White, but it would be foolish to dismiss Gonzalez' presence as a detriment to those other two studs. Jones has been in the NFL for just two years—both obviously with Gonzalez—so no comparison can be made with the former Alabama standout's pre-Gonzalez life in Atlanta. Still, it is clear as day that there is more than enough to go around to the Falcons' pass-catchers even with three Pro Bowl-caliber players hauling in strikes from Ryan. Jones made 54 receptions for 959 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie then caught 79 balls for 1198 yards and 10 scores last season. At 24 years old and entering his third campaign in this league (when receivers and others often enjoy true breakouts), Jones has every reason to be even better in 2013…especially now that Gonzalez is back. Furthermore, Jones is more of a speedy deep threat than White, so if Gonzalez has a negative impact on any teammate's numbers, it will be those of White—not Jones.
But there is no reason whatsoever to think White will suffer. In terms of numbers, White's four seasons with Gonzalez have been the four best of his eight-year career, the entirety of which has been spent in Atlanta (2012 was arguably tied for the fourth best along with 2008). To be sure, part of that is simply due to experience in the NFL and natural improvement on White's behalf; but a lot of White's success can be attributed to the fact that he had the best tight end in the history of the game drawing attention in the middle of the field. Both of White's 100-catch seasons have come with Gonzalez on board and the former University of Alabama-Birmingham star has made at least 85 receptions in each of the last four years despite playing in such a crowded pass-catching corps. White also has 36 total touchdowns over his past four campaigns, so as much as Ryan likes Gonzalez in the red zone, it is not taking away from White. It is simply adding to Atlanta's overall output. White has racked up at least seven touchdowns in each of the last four years having never exceeded seven scores in any of his first four years in the NFL.
As for Gonzalez himself, his prospects for another productive season are quite good. The main concern, of course, is that the 13-time Pro Bowler just turned 37 years old. But is there that much difference between being 37 and 36, or even 37 and 35? Maybe a little, but certainly not a lot. And Gonzalez certainly had no trouble as a 35 and 36-year-old. He caught 80 passes for 875 yards and seven scores in 2011 and he even improved last season with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. There is going to be wear and tear on anyone who has been a part of such a grueling league for 16 years, but relative to other players there is very little on Gonzalez' body. Perhaps the most incredible stat of all in his illustrious career to date is that the former Kansas City Chief has never played fewer than 15 games in any season. He has missed a grand total of two games out of a possible 256 played. How about another hard-to-believe statistic that says even more about what Gonzalez has left in the tank? Last season, at 36 years old, he had 27 receptions without a single drop on throws of 10 yards or more.
Don't overlook the fact that Atlanta also re-signed offensive tackle Sam Baker on the first day of NFL free agency. The Falcons' offensive line has never been anything more than decent during the Ryan-Gonzalez era, but that only makes this move even more imperative and significant. Without Baker, this team could have had—dare I say it—a Philadelphia Eagles situation on its hands in 2013. Don't get carried away by thinking that Atlanta will have some kind of five-man juggernaut in front of Ryan, but the unit should once again be serviceable with Baker back and on board. Also don't underestimate the importance of adequate pass-blockers playing in front of Ryan. The signal-caller had a whopping 615 pass attempts last season and you can bet he will have even more in 2013. First, look at the trend: Ryan averaged 442.5 attempts in his first two seasons, 568.5 in his next two, and then had 615 last year. Second, veteran running back Michael Turner was released earlier this offseason. The Falcons are obviously going to address that position via free agency or the draft, but Turner's absence is just another sign that Ryan and company are going to become even more pass-happy than they have been in recent times…and that is saying a lot! It is also screaming at fantasy owners that the entire pass-catching trio of Jones, White, and Gonzalez should be even more valuable in 2013 than it was in 2012…and that is also saying a lot!
The Falcons outscored plenty of opponents last season to make up for a sub-par defense. Based on recent events and transactions, they are making no secret about their plans to do the same in 2013. They have done very little to address the other side of the ball, and they may not have to if they stack an offense to the extent that it can average something like 30 points per game.
Atlanta's offense was a well-oiled machine in 2012. It' not running out of fuel anytime soon.