Q&A: Former Atlanta TE Tony Gonzalez talks Matt Ryan's ascendance, Falcons' future

Former Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez discusses Matt Ryan's progression, Rob Gronkowski's future and Atlanta's chances against the Patriots in Super Bowl 51.
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Tony Gonzalez, who has the most receiving yards for a tight end in NFL history with 15,127, finished out the last five years of his career with the Atlanta Falcons. Now an analyst on CBS's 'NFL Today,' Gonzalez caught up with SI's Maggie Gray on Radio Row in Houston and talked about how Matt Ryan has progressed over the years, the Falcons' chances in Super Bowl 51, and what the future may hold for fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gonzalez spoke to us on behalf of Marriott Rewards Experience Marketplace, which is hosting hundreds of members at SBLI experiences in Houston this weekend. Portions of Gonzalez's interview have been edited and condensed below, and you can watch the full interview here.

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Maggie Gray:We have to talk a little bit about this Super Bowl considering you spent the last five years of your career in Atlanta. What is different with this offense now as opposed to the time you were there? 

Gonzalez: Matt Ryan is probably the first thing that you look at. I played with him, and he has just become way more consistent in his brilliance. People always ask me, 'Matt Ryan, is he an elite quarterback', and I say, ‘he is at times.’ And as soon as he closes that gap of being elite all the time, that consistency, that’s when you’re really going to see who he is as a player. So I always said it’s not a matter of 'if' it’s just a matter of 'when' with him. And I think him going through what he went through last year, with the worst year of his career statistically, I really believe that is what changed him.  I remember my second year in the league I dropped 17 footballs. I led the NFL in dropped balls. And it’s the best thing to ever happen to me. It made me the player I became throughout the rest of my career, because now you have to ask yourself some questions that normally you wouldn’t ask. You have to change things and say 'okay, I can’t keep doing it that way because it’s not working.' And it happened to Matt. He wasn’t embarrassed, he just said, I can play way better than this. 

MG: There are still people who say, 'it's only been one season that Matt Ryan's been able to do this, things are really breaking right for the Falcons, he's clicking with Kyle Shanahan, but maybe I don’t believe that this is the real Matt Ryan.' How wide is the window for them, how big is it after this Super Bowl appearance? 

TG: You’ve gotta have players and you have to have a solidified offensive line. They brought Alex Mack in during free agency, he’s a stud at that center position. The line is playing so great and protecting Matt. But this is Matt. This is who you’ll see from here on out. Kyle Shanahan is likely not going to be here next year, but I don’t care who comes in there. Because whoever comes in there with their offensive system, it’s not going to be their offensive system anymore. It’s Matt Ryan’s offensive system. Kind of like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady. Matt Ryan is an offensive coordinator at this point. He’s been around long enough, he’s solidified himself as a leader, and he is able to say to whoever comes in there, 'we’ll listen to what ideas you have, but I make the final call now because this is my offense. They’re paying me a lot more money than you, I’m out there on the field, I’m the one who’s pulling the trigger.' And it takes a while for a player to get to that point.

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MG:That’s a major change in mentality for a player. Do you start playing what-ifs in your own head, about what it would have been like if he were playing like that when you were there?

TG:  I don’t play that game too much because if I did I’d probably start crying, and you don’t want that.​ But yeah, you think about it. But that’s how it goes, that’s the NFL. My rookie year in Kansas City in 1997, we were 13–3, we were the No. 1 AFC seed and I wasn’t the player I am now. If I was, that offense would have been that much better, and maybe we would have scored an extra touchdown against the Denver Broncos, we lost 14–10 in the playoffs and they went on to win the Super Bowl.  So it’s one of those things, could I have given them a little bit extra? And it’s the same thing here with the Falcons, especially now with how Matt's playing, and now that Julio Jones is the best receiver in the world along with Antonio Brown. 

MG: Both of the teams you played for, Kansas City and Atlanta, have the reputation as being these great regular season teams and not having that playoff success. Does Atlanta change that legacy on Sunday if they win?

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TG: I think they already changed it. People were saying when they get to the playoffs they’re just going to lose like they always do, even though we went to one playoff game and went to the NFC Championship Game before, but Matt hasn’t had a good playoff record. I think they’ve already gotten over that hump now. Everybody’s picking New England. I’m not picking New England. I think Atlanta can go out there and they’re going to win this game. Because they’re not going to be nervous. I know Matt knows that this opportunity is once in a lifetime. We’re not all like Tom Brady, who just keeps winning Super Bowls. I hope the best team wins on Sunday, but obviously I’m going for Atlanta.

MG: With all the attention on Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, the two running backs, we don’t really talk much about the Falcons’ tight ends this year. What impact do you think Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo will have on the Super Bowl?

AG: A small but significant impact. Obviously you’ve got Julio Jones, but they’re going to double team him like they did against Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship Game. Brown didn’t really do too much in that game. And I think that’s going to happen here. It’s going to have to be the other guys who have to move the ball up and down the field.  Because you know Bill Belichick’s going to have a plan for ol’ Julio Jones. It’s going to be Taylor Gabriel, it’s going to be Mohamed Sanu and the running backs, and then Hooper and Toilolo, if they can catch three really good balls, first down type balls in the 15-yard range, they’ll have a huge impact on this game. And those guys can block, too.

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MG:The fact that the Patriots have been able to get this far without Rob Gronkowski, who’s one of the best tight ends to ever do it, does it show that the Patriots would possibly move on from him since they can still get to the Super Bowl without him?

TG: They could. And they’ve got a good one in Martellus Bennett, he’s one of the best tight ends in the league. When they got him, I said this is the number one pickup out of any team this year. This guy can play. I’ve been watching him for a while. But I think it comes down to dollars and cents in the NFL. I think Gronkowski will be back because they’re not paying him that much money comparitvely speaking that he would get in the open market, so at least one more year of Gronkowski being there and if he has another injury type year, just like Bill Belichick always does, he will get rid of you. He doesn’t care who you are.

MG: With three major back injuries for Gronkowski, do you worry about what his future holds?

TG: I do. Because he’s such a phenomenal football player, and with Tom Brady, he's able to put up those big numbers that are phenomenal. It’s one of those things where I look back too and think, m'an can you imagine if I were playing with a guy like Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Matt Ryan the way he’s playing right now.' You don’t want to leave those types of guys so it would be very unfortunate for Gronkowski. And I don’t mind him breaking all records that I got because I like seeing it grow. I like seeing people achieve great things. Hopefully he’ll get back and get healthy because he’s got a bright future.