In 2008, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was among the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL by any measure -- he placed fifth in yards per attempt (7.97), 11th in passer rating (87.7), seventh in Football Outsiders' DYAR ranking (explained here), and fourth in DVOA. Ryan had just about everything -- poise, accuracy, maturity and football intelligence beyond his years, and the perfect system in which to grow and progress.
What he did not have, however, was a productive tight end. If we look at those same DVOA and DYAR stats for tight ends, we see that no Falcons player qualified for the top list with 25 passes in which they were the primary target. Justin Peelle topped the list with 23 targets. If you look at the top of that list and find the leader in DYAR (FO's season-cumulative stat), you'll see one Tony Gonzalez. His DYAR of 243, 155 targets, 1,058 yards, 1,392 Effective Yards (which translate value over average into a yardage figure), and 10 touchdowns led all NFL tight ends last year by sizeable margins.
And that's why the trade with Kansas City, in which the Falcons acquired the 33-year-old perennial All-Pro for a second-round pick in 2010, looks like highway robbery on its surface.
Gonzalez excelled in a KC offense that resorted to the Pistol formation to make quarterback Tyler Thigpen more comfortable in 2008, and new GM Scott Pioli's aggressive pursuit of former patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, seemed to say all that needed to be said about the Chiefs' passing game. Going from Thigpen from Ryan would seem to be a godsend for both parties.
How do the Chiefs faithful feel about the move? We asked C.E. Wendler of Warpaint Illustrated, Scout.com's Kansas City Chiefs site, for his take on The Great Gonzo, and how much he has left in the tank. (Click here for the full scouting report).
"Tony Gonzalez is in his prime.," Wendler said. "The man has barely aged despite being 33 years old. Last season was his best year since he dominated the NFL in 2004 with 1,258 yards in the league's top ranked offense. How he managed to rack up 10 touchdowns and another 96 catches playing with three different quarterbacks - all of whom were inept in some way - is beyond me.
"About the only defender who has been able to stop Tony Gonzalez over the past five or six years is Champ Bailey. The Broncos would frequently match him up one on one. Any other defender was asking for trouble. Linebackers weren't quick enough. Safeties weren't big enough. Zones were useless, because Gonzalez is a master at finding the hole in the zone and presenting himself to his quarterback."
Wendler also pointed out a truly astonishing stat -- Gonzalez has lost exactly one fumble since 1999.
“Tony brings a new dynamic to the Falcons offense and we are very pleased that we were able to make the trade with Kansas City,” said Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff in the team's official press release. “His career numbers and records are top notch and he will no doubt be an integral part of our offense.”
Gonzalez has played in 190 career games with 174 starts in a Chiefs uniform. The Cal graduate has four 1,000-yard receiving seasons, 26 100-yard receiving contests and is just the fifth player and the first tight end in NFL history to produce 11 consecutive seasons with 50 or more receptions. Gonzalez’s career numbers lead all Kansas City receivers in franchise history and his 916 career catches are the ninth-most in NFL history and fourth-highest among active players.
“Tony is one of the best tight ends in NFL history and will be a great addition to our team,” said Head Coach Mike Smith. “He will be a leader both on and off the field for our organization.”
The Chiefs seemed to know what they were letting go in Gonzalez, who had long made his frustrations known when it came to playing on a losing team. “On behalf of my family and the Chiefs, I want to thank Tony for his time in Kansas City,” team chairman Clark Hunt said. “Over the last 12 seasons, Tony has been one of the finest players in Chiefs history, and he will always be remembered as a member of the Chiefs. His play on the field speaks for itself – he holds almost every major NFL record for tight ends, and he is arguably the best to ever play his position. We wish him the best in Atlanta.”
“From an organizational as well as personal standpoint there are mixed emotions,” said Scott Pioli, Chiefs GM, in announcing the trade. “I have the highest personal and professional respect for Tony and consider him to be a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.”
The most productive tight end in NFL history couldn't be happier about the move. "It's somewhat bittersweet," Gonzalez told Jay Glazer of FOXSports.com. "I love Kansas City. I grew up in Kansas City. The city means a lot to me. But I'm looking forward to making a Super Bowl run in Atlanta every year for the next three or four years. With Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and now myself, we have the chance to be in the top 5 in the league in offense every year. How could I not be excited to join that team?"
Ryan, as one might expect, was overjoyed at the news. "Tony's arrival will make an instant impact not only on the offensive side of the ball, but on the overall team in general," he said in a statement. "I feel privileged to be throwing the ball to a future Hall of Famer and I'm anxious to get on the field to start working with him."
The Falcons filled their one glaring hole on offense, allowing Dimitroff and his staff to put their focus on a defense full of holes after the defections of Michael Boley, Keith Brooking, Domonique Foxworth, Grady Jackson, and Lawyer Milloy. And they don't even have to pay for the trade with a draft pick until next season. Initial reports have indicated that the Falcons are already talking to Gonzalez about a new contract, and the team couldn't be in a better state heading into draft weekend.
Nobody thought that Dimitroff could pull off another miracle like the 2008 season. But if the Gonzalez trade is any indication, last year may have been little more than a warmup for the future.
Doug Farrar is the Publisher of Falcon Insider. He also writes for Football Outsiders, the Washington Post, ESPN.com, and the Seattle Times. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.