Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons, 1 p.m. Sunday, Fox

Panthers look to spoil Tony Gonzalez’s retirement

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

The Panthers have spoiled the farewell tours for San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and Minnesota’s Metrodome already this season.

Now, one more goodbye is left.

Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez says Sunday will be his final NFL game, finishing a 17-year career that amassed 15,071 receiving yards on 1,321 catches and 111 receiving touchdowns while revolutionizing the tight end position.

Before Gonzalez entered the league in 1997 with the Kansas City Chiefs, teams primarily placed the tight end beside an offensive tackle. But with his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame and his basketball background, the Chiefs put him out wide.

“Tony was really one of the first guys that they would flex out and create matchup issues with linebackers or safeties or corners, because they would move them all over the place,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “They were doing that in Kansas City, and then I think it’s become the way that the tight end position is being played in the NFL now.”

Gonzalez’s receptions and yards marks are tops among tight ends and, perhaps more impressive, among the top six in all receivers.

Gonzalez flirted with retirement last season, but after meeting with Smith and Falcons management, he decided to play one more season in hopes of getting that elusive Super Bowl ring.

Atlanta’s season has fallen well short of the aspirations as the injury-riddled Falcons sit at 4-11 and are in contention for a top-five draft pick. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he fully expects Atlanta to contend for the NFC South title next year, and Falcons wide receiver Roddy White is campaigning to get Gonzalez to stay another year.

“I tell him every day, ‘You should come back, you can still play. You’re still going out there and beating people one-on-one, so there’s no need for you to give it up now,’ ” White said. “I think you should give it up when you can’t play anymore. But, he always tells me, ‘Who wants to play 18 years in the NFL?’ 

Sometimes, though, Gonzalez will ask White if he thinks he could actually play another year.

“I always tell him, ‘You could play like five more years if you decided to.’ He’s going to keep it motivated and keep in his mind wondering if he wants to come back next year. But, there are no guarantees in the NFL, we don’t know how our team will look next year. We’ve just got to wait and see where his mindset is after the season.”

The Falcons will honor Gonzalez at halftime of Sunday’s game with a half-and-half helmet – one side with a Falcons decal and the other with a Chiefs decal, where he played from 1997-2008.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen remembers watching Gonzalez in high school when he was a member of the Chiefs. Smith said he sees a lot of Gonzalez in Olsen, the type of tight end who can create mismatch problems from opposing defenses because of his versatility.

“And now here I am seven years deep into my career, and he’s still playing,” Olsen said. “And I’m playing against him. It’s a testament to obviously how gifted he is. Obviously, he must be a tremendous worker. He must have the full package. To have the success, the consistency and the longevity, he’s pretty much the epitome of what every guy would set out to achieve in their career.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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