Before you all begin hurling stones this way, let me be clear about how I feel about Tony Gonzalez. He is, unquestionably, one of the greatest receivers (not just tight ends) to have ever played the game. He is a first ballot hall of famer. He is an amazing man and at 36, was out-performing guys 10 years younger. Nothing I'm about to write takes away from him as a player and the deep amount of respect I have for him and for what he's done for this franchise.
But, I think his retiring can actually help the Falcons.
That doesn't mean I think they're a lesser team if he returns. That would be ludicrous. That doesn't mean I think his performance is about to fall off a cliff, because it won't. My thought turns to less obvious matters, but important ones nonetheless.
The Salary Cap
Here's a reality of having Gonzo back on the team that we tend to overlook: he would have a big salary cap hit. Whatever contract we sign him to, it would likely be for one year and the cap hit would fully count against 2013, more than likely. We're looking at a hit of between 6 and 7 million, depending on the final numbers. That said, Tony is certainly worth every penny he is paid, but the question isn't whether he's worth it - it's about what that hit does to the rest of the roster.
Obviously, not having Tony means you have to find another solution for your receiving corps. Whether it's a free agent tight end like Cook, a draft pick like Ertz or something else entirely, you have to find someone else to put in that place. And let's be clear: none of those guys is going to suddenly be the next Tony G. But at some point, we're going to have to face the reality that we won't have him anymore. Someone will have to fill that role. Here's the thing, though: whoever that is, whether it's a free agent, a rookie or someone on the roster - the cap hit will be far more controllable.
That additional cap space could be the difference in snagging a defensive free agent or other player that can contribute in another area of need. And while the hurt of losing Tony will be tangible, it's going to happen at some point - best to pull the band-aid off quickly.
Ryan's Comfort Zone
When Tony was brought in prior to Ryans second year, the immediate benefit was to help mentor our young QB and to give him a consistent and reliable target. Over the last several years, it's become very clear that the two of them have amazing timing and trust in one another. And that is not easy to replace. But Ryan isn't the same QB he was four years ago.
We all saw Ryan take a huge leap forward in 2012, as he commanded a pass first offense beautifully. His leadership on the field was clear and any lingering doubts as to whether he could run such an offense were put to rest. Ryan is finally the kind of QB that can drive an offense. He is now the type of QB that can make other players around him better.
It's time to remove his last crutch.
Again, don't read that as a criticism of either player. But the reality is that when there was a third down to be converted, everyone and their mother knew Ryan was looking first to Gonzo - and for good reason. But if this offense is going to take the next step - and become truly dominating - it needs to be a little less predictable as well. That means that Ryan will need to spread the ball around and get other guys involved more consistently. If Tony G isn't there to convert critical third downs, Ryan and Koetter will be forced to look for other options. While Roddy is the likely heir apparent to that critical role, it also means other guys will get some opportunities as teams hone in on Roddy.
Often, our greatest growth takes place after our biggest loss.
Passing the Torch
The NFL is rich with the stories of the "next man up." Many Green Bay fans wondered what life after Favre would look like, only to be delighted at the amazing performance of Aaron Rodgers. San Francisco fans were torn when the great Joe Montana donned a Kansas City uniform, only to be thrilled with the record setting performance of Steve Young behind him.
Here's the thing, though: in order for those next great players to step up, it sometimes means another great player has had to step to the side.
Is that player currently on the roster for the Falcons? I don't know. Some of us like the potential of Chase Coffman while others are rightfully worried about his injury history. Others still like the potential of several tight ends in this years draft, while others doubt there's another Tony G in the mix. The fact is, it's impossible to know for sure. But the story of the next great player will not likely happen until there is a spot to be stepped into - a void to be filled. So long as Tony G is lining up for the Falcons, he will rightfully command a large portion of the passing game. He is too good not to use. But by retiring, there will be a void - and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Let me be clear: I absolutely love Gonzo. He was everything this franchise needed and more. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the progression of our franchise QB. Without him, I doubt this team would have been nearly as successful. But his retirement is coming. If not this year, quite likely next year. And while I'll be devastated to see him finally ride off, I know it's a reality we will all have to face. And by facing it this year, it puts us on the path to recovery a little bit sooner.