EDIT: Updated to reflect the fact that the magazine will be on newsstands tomorrow.
It's the end of a brilliant career for Tony Gonzalez. ESPN the Magazine's Seth Wickersham embedded with the future Hall of Famer this season to chronicle his last season, with the magazine hitting newsstands Friday and the Web next week. Wickersham is generally excellent and I'll be looking forward to reading the whole piece tonight, but it's already clear what many are going to take away from the reporting.
"Matt's an excellent quarterback. But he's not elite. He's this close" Recently retired Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez to @ESPNMag— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 6, 2014
Let me be blunt: This is a non-story, and it's certainly not the kind of explosive comment that many have characterized it as. The context surrounding that quote talks about Gonzalez's real respect for Ryan based on the "drive" to succeed that Gonzo identifies in the quarterback. A little different than calling your buddy a lousy quarterback, I'd say.
Then there's the $100 million question: What is the difference between "excellent" and elite? If Gonzalez is saying Matt Ryan isn't Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, well, okay. I don't think there's a Falcons fan on this planet who doesn't know this is the truth. Age is a factor now or will be soon with three of those players, but there's no question their careers have been better than Ryan's. We can debate that, but I'd expect most would be in agreement with that statement. Some might even include Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in that list, though you'll have to get a little more creative in your arguments to do so.
It's clear from both the ESPN the Magazine piece and the video embedded below that Gonzo does think that Ryan is a great quarterback, and certainly the best he's played with despite the low bar you have to assume there. At worst, Gonzo is suggesting that Ryan cannot safely be called one of the four or five best quarterbacks in the NFL—unless Gonzo uses the word "elite" more liberally than most—but is close to that level. Again, that doesn't ring up as particularly controversial to me.
What fuels this is the never-ending undercurrent of anxiety in the NFL over who is and isn't elite, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks. There's a sense that we must know what makes an elite quarterback and how many there are, when in reality we're just debating with the same level of subjective opinion that infuses every other discussion about players and how good they really are. We don't want to accidentally include players in that elite category that don't belong there, but your definition of elite is different than ESPN's. It's probably different than mine.
If Gonzalez had said at any point to Wickersham or anyone else that Ryan was mediocre or even just good, you've got yourself something that's worth breathless SportsCenter quotes and dissections of Ryan's game. This is just another excuse to dust off the debate over who is and isn't elite, something we talk about quite enough without needing to enlist a quote from Gonzo. If there's one thing we can all agree on as Falcons fans, it's the hope that Ryan will put this debate to bed forever starting this next season.
Weigh in below, and be sure to get your hands on a copy of the full story.