The ESPN the Magazine article shed some negative light on Gonzalez, who seemed to be frustrated and coming to terms with the end of his Hall of Fame career. Whether his feelings and actions were justified or not, the bigger question is if his frustration with being "forced" to play out a wasted season in Atlanta lead him to mail in his performance.
Maybe Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz mailed it in after hoping to get traded out of Atlanta? I might have stumbled onto something here, you guys.
Out of pure curiosity, I wondered how Pro Football Focus, the popular online football metrics website, rated Gonzalez late into last season. At which point I heroically asked Jeanna to do all of the work and research and get back to me, then I would steal everything she said and put it into an article.
Quick background on Pro Football Focus: they grade every player on every play through the season. They are a great tool to help evaluate particular players. Not everything they do is beyond question but they have an unbiased measure out how a player does.
Did Gonzalez drop off after the deadline? Did his PFF rating fall of in a significant manner that is not seen in previous years?
Before the trade deadline, Gonzalez had a 6.6 overall grade, predictably showing out well in pass catching and poorly in run blocking. Typical Gonzalez. Jimmy Graham had the exact same 6.6 grade at that point in the season. It is a pretty solid grade so early in the season.
After the trade deadline passed, Gonzalez got his third best grade of the year against Carolina, posting a monstrous 3.1 positive grade. At that point in the season Gonzalez only had three negative grades.
Then he never posted another single positive grade the entire year. Eight straight games of negative games dropped his 6.6 grade to a -3.
Gonzalez finished ranked the 39th overall tight end out of 64 and was outscored by both Chase Coffman and Levine Toilolo (probably thanks to very limited snaps of 28 and 198, respectively).
Nine games is a pretty small sample size and it is probably too small to make any sweeping conclusions about the potentially retired tight end's effort. I wouldn't blame this on age, as it doesn't look like Gonzalez had any similar downward trends in his previous seasons. I would say this is an unprecedented drop off that seems to start right around the trade deadline.
The uncharacteristically low grades given by Pro Football Focus could support almost any sort of argument you want to make about Gonzalez, whether it be that he gave up down the stretch or that this was as random as it gets.
I leave it to you to decide.