FLOWERY BRANCH — A little Greek mythology is not lost on Tony Gonzalez, future Hall of Fame tight end for the Falcons and philosopher of sorts.
His story has played out like a modern-day Tantalus, the son of both Greek god and mortal, who faces the eternal punishment of never being able to reach either the fruit in the low-hanging tree above him or the water that keeps receding below him.
Gonzalez, who leads all NFL tight ends in history in every major offensive category (yards, receptions, touchdowns), has never tasted victory in five trips to the playoffs, including twice with the Falcons. He came back this season for one more try at it. He and the Falcons will face Minnesota, Seattle or Washington on Jan. 13 at the Georgia Dome.
Waiting out the bye week was no great mental hurdle for the 36-year-old who put off retirement for this chance. The organic foodie, author, fitness guru and thinker is used to trying to make sense of his path, rolling it all over in his head again and again.
“I think about it all the time,” Gonzalez said. “You always think about what you’ve gone through in the past and the tough heart-breaking losses that I’ve had in the playoffs. And hopefully it is for a reason because it makes (this year) so much sweeter.”
In the 1997 season, Gonzalez was a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs, who like these Falcons were 13-3, drew a first-round bye and were dubbed a Super Bowl favorite. The Chiefs lost to John Elway and the Broncos 14-10 in the divisional playoffs that season, and Elway went on to snap his streak of three Super Bowl losses by defeating the Packers at age 37.
Now Gonzalez, who turns 37 in February, is down to what he has said he’s 95 percent sure is his last chance. Four other first-round losses followed that first loss in 1997 — with the Chiefs in 2003 and 2006 and the Falcons in 2010 and 2011.
“If I had won it back then, it wouldn’t have been as sweet as if I won it this year, just because I know what it takes,” he said. “And I know going through a whole career, 16 years and not even having a playoff win, or let alone a Super Bowl, it’s tough.”
Gonzalez has become a poster child for a Falcons team trying to get out of a rut. They’ve lost three playoff games without a victory in the past five years, including the past two to the Packers and Giants.
“Yeah, we want to win one for Tony,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said Thursday, smiling as he leaned into the scrum of reporters in front of Gonzalez’s locker, donning a black stocking cap and gray hoodie under his practice jersey.
“You heard it right here,” Gonzalez responded. “And that type of attitude is what I like right there because honestly that’s the attitude I have for them.”
Gonzalez’s approach to his checkered playoff history is about as subtle as his yards after the catch. Turn, face, plow. And that might be just what the Falcons need. At a time when they could be feeling the pressure of the moment, they seem to be embracing it.
“I think you use anything you can take at this point,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “If that’s what gets guys going, by all means, let’s take advantage of that.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith showed the team a six-minute NFL Films video before practice Thursday with highlights of Super Bowl champions such as Ronnie Lott, Shannon Sharpe and Ray Lewis talking about their playoff experiences.
It hit home with Gonzalez.
“They talked about if you’re on that losing side and you look across that field and you see the smiles and the jubilation on the other team’s faces, you know they get to keep playing football and keep the dream alive to go get a Super Bowl, and you’re going home,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t want that feeling anymore. We’re too good, and we’ve worked too hard.
“And I’m sure a lot of NFL teams can say the same thing, but hopefully this will be our time to go out there and shine and make it all the way through.”
Gonzalez makes his home in Southern California. Playing another season has meant time away from his mother, his grandmother, his brothers and his oldest son.
“It can all be worth it,” Gonzalez said. “And we put ourselves in a position where hopefully it’s setting up to be well worth it.”
White was long gone by the time he said that, and so was the scrum. Five playoff games, albeit losses, have taught Gonzalez a few things, which is probably why he went on to say:
“It’s already been worth it, actually. We’ve had a great season.”
As badly as Gonzalez wants three more wins, there’s still something to be said for the chance.
ALL FOR NAUGHT
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is 0-5 in his career in the playoffs. Here’s a breakdown of those five losses:
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