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New School vs. Old. Glitz vs. Grunters. Tony Gonzalez vs. Mike Mularkey.

The tight end position was evolving. The Falcons’ offensive coordinator wasn’t having it. And on what should have been a celebratory Sunday afternoon 13 years ago, things almost came to a bloody head.

Adapted excerpt from The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football ©2022 Tyler Dunne and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.

Tony Gonzalez wanted to slug his own coordinator directly in the jaw. He’d had enough.

He was ready to take on Mike Mularkey.

The day this tight end great—perhaps the greatest ever—missed out on his one thousandth career reception, mayhem could’ve broken out inside the visitor’s locker room. His confidence had swelled to this extreme. But long before such a breaking point in the twilight of his career with the Atlanta Falcons, before he imagined even playing a down in the NFL, Gonzalez was something much different on a football field.

Many nights, he cried. Alone. Year 2 in the NFL, with the Chiefs, was a nightmare. Gonzalez’s 16 dropped passes led the NFL. Stronger than ever, he felt like “an ox” blocking as a traditional tight end in Marty Schottenheimer’s run-first, Martyball offense. But as the drops mounted, he fell into an abyss. He was drinking. Only, it wasn’t in a state of college bliss. Gonzalez locked himself in his room and ripped through Jack and Cokes in an attempt to drink his sorrows away.

“A lot of self-loathing. A lot of self-doubt,” he says. “That’s such a bad place to be in, but it’s such a good place, too—if you can get through it.”

Gonzalez’s K.C. totals when he arrived in Atlanta: 916 catches, 76 TDs and almost 11,000 yards.

Gonzalez’s K.C. totals when he arrived in Atlanta: 916 catches, 76 TDs and almost 11,000 yards.

And he did. He took his dedication to a new level. Quickly, his pure love for catching the ball—the sound, the smell—returned and Gonzalez, after playing hoops at Cal, effectively basketballified the position. In catching 93 balls for 1,203 yards and nine touchdowns in 2000, he elevated the tight end position to a new realm. Peripheral vision from hoops helped. If he had an extra millisecond at his disposal, he’d jump back to avoid the kill shot completely. This wasn’t as fun to watch as, say, Jeremy Shockey barreling through other humans like bowling pins, but Gonzalez in his career would play in 270 of a possible 272 games. The way he could bend his body in midair was preposterous, and it was no accident. Severely undersized at power forward, Gonzalez now physically dominated smaller corners and linebackers alike.

“I don’t care who the f--- is out there,” Gonzalez says. “You cannot guard me.”

Gonzalez had a gift, yet it also didn’t seem like coaches always knew how to use it. Jimmy Raye, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, understood what he had in No. 88, but those Chiefs, in Gonzalez’s early years, couldn’t win, so the coaching staff was fired. In came Dick Vermeil and his famed “Greatest Show on Turf” offense. Initially, Gonzalez was ecstatic, but he soon learned that this offense featured wide receivers. Not tight ends. His numbers were always excellent—Gonzalez was a first-team All-Pro five times in K.C.—but he can’t shake the thought of what could’ve been. He spent the final three seasons of his career with the Chiefs catching passes from Brodie Croyle, Tyler Thigpen and Damon Huard, before getting dealt to the Falcons in April 2009. Finally. The 32-two-year-old was ecstatic to play with a quarterback on the rise (Matt Ryan), an All-Pro wide receiver (Roddy White) and a bruising All-Pro running back (Michael Turner). The cherry on top: a coordinator who’d played tight end himself for nine seasons.

On Day 1, that coach—Mike Mularkey—told his new star to meet him for a film session. The arranged marriage was doomed.

One thought ran through the tight end’s mind as his new coach spoke to him in such a gruff tone. This was their first conversation ever, yet Mularkey sounded … aggravated. As if he didn’t even want to coach Gonzalez. For a good 20 minutes straight, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator played clips of tight ends he’d coached with the Steelers in the 1990s, blocking power plays in the run game.

Again and again, there was Mark Bruener absolutely mauling opponents. Gonzalez could not help but ask himself the entire time: Why did these guys even trade for me?

Finally, Mularkey spoke up.

“I know you catch all those balls,” he told Gonzalez, “but this is what we do here. And this is what’s going to be expected of you. I just want to make sure you’re O.K. with that.”

Gonzalez told his new coach he was on board, but he couldn’t believe the Falcons would trade for him if the person calling the plays didn’t appreciate what he did best. Honestly, Mularkey had no clue what Atlanta was thinking, either. He had been begging GM Thomas Dimitroff to get him a blocking tight end for a year, and he was not pleased to receive Gonzalez instead. Way back in 1997, Gonzalez was the coach’s highest-graded tight end prospect. Mularkey even calls him an “unbelievable” blocker at Cal. But Mularkey accuses Gonzalez of simply not caring about this part of the job as his pro career progressed.

To Mularkey, this film session was normal procedure. He showed this ass-kicking montage to all his new tight ends. A few, he laughs, had looked like they were going to pee their pants watching this series of clips, which also included ex-Steelers brutes like Mitch Lyons and Jerame Tuman. “Get used to it,” Mularkey would tell them.

That was his message here, and Gonzalez, he claims, flatly said that he did not block power plays.


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“We did not start off on the right foot,” Mularkey says, “because he told me right away that he basically wasn’t going to block.”

The relationship only grew worse. And worse. Old school collided with new school in spectacular fashion, essentially putting the modern-day NFL tight end on trial right in Atlanta.

Neither party was particularly wrong in how they viewed the position. Mularkey represented a lot of what made the tight end position so special, right down to that “one extra shove” at the whistle. What he knew was selfless bruisers, like Bruener, physically beating defenders into submission. Yet for the tight end to enter a new dominion—to become something more profound—it needed Tony Gonzalez in full. The acrobatics. The ego. He was talented enough to force any coach from any era to change their definition of the position. Gonzalez was the reason a guy like Antonio Gates, another college basketball player, even gets NFL workouts—and with the Chargers, Gates was reeling off eight straight Pro Bowl appearances. Gonzalez made it O.K. for the New Orleans Saints to take Jimmy Graham 95th in 2010. His style of play was so original, so fresh. Scouts began to search far and wide for anything that remotely resembled Gonzalez.

Some teams embraced the change. Others did not. Gonzalez believes that Mularkey was trying to halt this evolution. Mostly because, he says, the coach loathed players with any “glitz,” any “glamour” to their game. He claims the OC would mock him in front of the entire offense during film sessions and that he formed an opinion of him before they even got to know each other.

“Because he has that mentality. ‘We’re grunt work. We’re grunters. We don’t care about the notoriety. We don’t care about that stuff,’ ” Gonzalez says. “Well, I’m like, ‘Motherf---er, I do care about that. I want to score touchdowns.’ I had a nice reputation coming in. I had gone to the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row [with] Kansas City.

“He’s like, ‘We’re not having that here! None of that s---!’ O.K. You win, motherf---er.”

Gonzalez could play Mr. Nice Guy only so long. He started sniping back.

When Mularkey would ask him a question in meetings, he’d reply with a dismissive “I don’t know,” which only pissed off Mularkey more. The coach’s disgust with Gonzalez-the-blocker led to quite a scene after one Falcons practice. Mularkey had one 300-pound blob buried on the defensive line depth chart stay to mash one-on-one into his tight ends. There was no ball. Only Mularkey shouting “Hike!” and two players bashing into each other.

Gonzalez proved a poor match for the ball-hungry Mularkey, who wanted mashing blockers.

Gonzalez proved a poor match for the ball-hungry Mularkey, who wanted mashing blockers.

“He was literally shortening our necks after practice,” Gonzalez says. “I couldn’t believe I was doing this s---. I finally stepped out and said, ‘I’m done.’ He goes, ‘You’re not going to do it again?! What kind of example are you setting?’ ‘I’m not f---ing doing it!’”

Believing the Falcons were wasting his talent, Gonzalez recommended Atlanta do the same thing the Chiefs did: sign a 285-pound tight end complement capable of handling the heavy lifting in the run game. That was how the Broncos operated in the 1990s, too: They’d run toward Dwayne Carswell or Byron Chamberlain much more than Shannon Sharpe. The Falcons didn’t take this path, but Mularkey did stop using Gonzalez as a lead blocker.

Years later, both player and coach are clearly full of animosity for each other. It didn’t surprise the coach that Gonzalez didn’t invite him to his Hall of Fame induction. He snipes that the difference between the two of them was that Gonzalez cared about records, and he cared about winning. The bad blood was no secret in the Falcons’ locker room. Wide receiver Brian Finneran enjoyed playing for Mularkey. As an undrafted free agent who overachieved his entire career, he was the sort of nonstar Mularkey likely wishes would’ve populated the entire offense.

It’s not too complicated to him: Mularkey wanted tight ends who both caught passes and blocked, the latter of which was not Gonzalez’s top priority.

“Mike Mularkey tried to force it, and Tony didn’t like being told what to do,” Finneran says. “I love the guy. He was a great teammate and a great friend. But he also had that Hollywood aspect to him. A pretty-looking dude. Physically dominating. Best at his position in the world. Mularkey just had a mindset for tight ends, and Tony wasn’t in the mold of what he had in mind.”

Mularkey’s model tight end, Bruener, was not shocked that this union dissolved so quickly. These were two individuals who spent their lives at the tight end position. And they each thrived with completely different ideologies. After all those years in K.C., dominating downfield, this was a stark departure for Gonzalez. “It’s like: ‘Wait a minute. This guy’s asking me to do something different than what I’ve done the last 12, 13 years? I don’t know if I really want to do that,’ ” Bruener says. “Not to say Tony was right or wrong. That was his prerogative.”

Everything boiled over in Week 17 of the 2009 season.

Both the Falcons (8–7) and Buccaneers (3–12) had been eliminated from playoff contention. There wasn’t much at stake other than Gonzalez being four catches away from hitting 1,000 for his career. Gonzalez was dealing with a throbbing calf, but he says he believed he owed it to himself to take some Toradol and play on. This was a chance to go where no tight end had gone before. (He’d already broken Sharpe’s record for receptions by a tight end in 2007, when he hit 816.)

By halftime, he got to 999. One dump-off would do it. The officials were ready to stop the game and give him the football.

“We go into the second half,” Gonzalez says, “and this f---er doesn’t throw me the ball one time. He doesn’t call one play for me. Not one. At the end of the game, he calls it naked for me. Of course, Tampa has three guys on me because they’re like, ‘You’re not getting it against us.’ So I don’t get the ball. That was the only play for me in the second half.”

The Falcons won, 20–10.

Naturally, Gonzalez and Mularkey differ on what happened next.

Gonzalez says Mularkey loathed players with any “glitz” or “glamour” to their game. The tight end’s TD celebrations couldn’t have been popular with the OC.

Gonzalez says Mularkey loathed players with any “glitz” or “glamour” to their game. The tight end’s TD celebrations couldn’t have been popular with the OC.

Mularkey describes a joyous locker room. Yeah, they missed the playoffs, but for the first time in their 44 years of existence, the Falcons enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons. He can still picture owner Arthur Blank grinning ear to ear. This game wasn’t meaningless to him.

Gonzalez, though, remembers players and coaches alike being pissed on his behalf. At his stall, Gonzalez was livid. He saw Mularkey shaking each player’s hand and found that odd. The coach hadn’t done that after any other game in two seasons, as far as he recalled. Gonzalez was convinced that Mularkey was trying to screw with him.

Locker to locker, the coach inched closer ... and closer ... and then Gonzalez felt a tap on his back.

There stood Mularkey with an outstretched hand and what Gonzalez describes as an exaggerated “s--- eating grin.”

“I go, ‘Motherf---er. Get away from me, Mike. Don’t f--- with me, dude.’ … He goes, ‘What are you talking about? We won the game. Aren’t you happy that we won the game?’ And I go, ‘Mike, get the f--- away from me. I promise you, I’m going to beat the f---ing s--- out of you in front of everybody here.’ He goes, ‘What is your problem?’ And I went after him. I was about to swing, and all of a sudden the players jump on me. I’m like, ‘You’re the f---ing worst coach I’ve ever seen in my f---ing life.’ ”

If teammates hadn’t held him, Gonzalez is sure he would’ve dropped the hammer.

“We were close. I was in football mode at that point. Ready to die.”

Mularkey, in so many words, assures that he was also prepared for such a scenario. He also says he didn’t want to spoil what he deemed a celebratory occasion, and he says Gonzalez is lying about being held back.

Either way, Gonzalez did later apologize to Mularkey, though he made it clear it was bulls--- that the coach iced him out. Mularkey started to repeat that he was trying to win the game, and the tight end cut him off before taking a deep breath and cooling down. Miraculously, the two coexisted for two more seasons before Mularkey became the head coach of the Jaguars.

To this day, Mularkey insists that when head coach Mike Smith told him to get the ball to Gonzalez late in that game, he had no clue why. He even regrets calling that one pass play on the final drive because it got Ryan hit. He contends that he genuinely didn’t know Gonzalez was stuck on No. 999 until he was flying home on the team plane, not that it would’ve made any difference. “I called plays to win the game,” Mularkey says. “I didn’t call plays to appease players. I don’t give a s— about that.” As Finneran notes, Ryan could’ve thrown a short pass to Gonzalez at some point in that second half, but he was also in his second year. The QB wasn’t about to go rogue. Mularkey is one of Finneran’s favorite coaches, but even he admits this was a bad moment for the coach. The more Finneran thinks about it, the more he believes Mularkey’s move was “bush league.”

This is as Darwinian as it gets. The more time passes, the more Mularkey popping in that tape of his ex-Steelers tight ends feels like Steve Kerr pulling up clips of ex-Chicago Bulls center Luc Longley for the big men on his Golden State Warriors. The game changes. To Gonzalez, the evolution of his position is similar to the traditional center in the NBA being replaced by guys like Kevin Durant launching three-pointers. Without question, the most rapid growth at the tight end position occurred between Gonzalez’s first season (1997) and his last (2013). All because he took matters into his own hands.

So much of this position has to do with environment. Gonzalez cannot help but wonder what would’ve happened if Rob Gronkowski had been drafted by the Falcons in 2010. “With his big ass?!” Gonzalez says, laughing. No question, Mularkey would’ve plugged him in as an in-line blocker.

Instead, Bill Belichick had a vision for the position. Tom Brady was his quarterback, and Josh McDaniels was his play-caller. Gonzalez even believes Bruener might’ve had a chance to shine as a pass catcher with a different coach.

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Across his career, Gonzalez rarely had the benefit of an offensive mastermind. He took the hard road right down to playing with quarterbacks who shouldn’t have been on NFL rosters. And still, Gonzalez was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That’s why he also firmly believes that the best tight ends find a way to “get their s---,” regardless of environment, and keep this evolution moving. Not surprisingly, he had one of the best seasons of his career after Mularkey left. In 2012—Year 16, at age 36—he caught 93 balls for 930 yards with eight touchdowns. Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma covered Gonzalez that season in the NFC South and describes his game as pure poetry. “Like watching art.” There were faster tight ends, more explosive tight ends, but nobody lulled defenders to sleep quite like Gonzalez.

“Exceptionally great hands,” Vilma says. “His hands are super soft, and anything that went his way, he was going to get. With the basketball, he could high-point the ball. So, even if I was covering him, I wasn’t covering him. There’s no way I can go up and get him.”

Gonzalez’s trick was to never explode out of his stance. He instead ran at about three- quarters speed and gave the linebacker a nudge on the hip before breaking out.

“That little split right there is all he needed,” Vilma says. “He nudges you on the hip with the elbow and then he bursts full-speed for an out route. Now, it’s too late. There is nothing you can do. And he’d catch everything with his hands. Imagine trying to come up with a game plan where three of your guys—three linebackers—can’t cover him. So now you’re left with the two safeties. How are you going to help with the wide receivers if you’re using your safeties on the tight end every time? It was a nightmare dealing with him. He revolutionized that position.”

One safety who covered Gonzalez throughout his own 11-year career speaks in the same helpless pitch. To Donte Whitner, he was the “Tim Duncan of the NFL.” Gonzalez’s sneaky rope-a-dope was the football equivalent of the Spurs’ legend turning around for a 12-foot bank shot. Defenders knew what Duncan was going to do on the block, but the “Big Fundamental” was too tall, too decisive, too in-tune with the geometry of the play for you to do anything about it.

That was Tony Gonzalez.

He’d run his routes at the same depth and knew exactly what the defensive back was thinking based on leverage.

“It’s not flashy,” Whitner says. “But he was a technician. He was all about the fundamentals and the basics. There’s a reason he played that long—at that level—that late in his career. He was able to get open because he was a technician and understood the small nuances of the game.”

Gonzalez’s love for catching a football reached an all-time high in 2012—the year after Mularkey left for Jacksonville. With a system catering to his strengths and Ryan at his peak, Gonzalez led the Falcons to a 13–3 record and the No. 1 NFC seed in the playoffs. In the divisional round, his 19-yard reception set up a game-winning field goal against the Seahawks. In the NFC championship, he caught all eight passes thrown his way. Trailing 28–24, the Falcons drove to the 49ers’ 10-yard line, and on fourth-and-4 new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter called Gonzalez’s number on a slant route. A 49ers DB, however, anticipated the play, dropped into that area, and Ryan was forced to throw elsewhere. It fell incomplete.

Gonzalez played one more season, retired, sat out all of 2014, and Tom Brady called.

The greatest ever wanted to see whether Gonzalez was up for a catch in Los Angeles. Brady told him to bring his cleats to a practice field at UCLA’s facility. This wasn’t uncommon—a lot of former players join the QB for throwing sessions. Gonzalez figured Brady was just looking to get a quick workout in. Boy, was he wrong. When Gonzalez showed up, he saw a bunch of nonathletes standing around, and no other players. He was the only one catching balls from Brady this day.

Every pass was on the money. Whenever Gonzalez got back to the line of scrimmage, Brady apologized for not placing the ball in front of him because those extra six inches correlated to three more yards on his YAC.

When the workout was done, all others in attendance circled Gonzalez like it was an intervention. There was Tom House, the QB’s private coach. A nutritionist. A stretch coach. A mental coach. Brady closed in, thanked Gonzalez for the time and asked him a question: “Are you sure you’re done playing?” Gonzalez said he was. Brady told him a player can sustain their physical peak until the age of 45 and that Gonzalez would crush it with Gronkowski in New England. Still, Gonzalez stayed retired. He wasn’t keen on the Boston cold, but he also stayed put out of what was right in his mind.

As Gonzalez changed the sport, the salary given to such vanguards stagnated. After that All-Pro season in 2012, he was shocked no team would offer him more than $7 million. He didn’t understand it, nor did his agent, Tom Condon. The NFL tight end was asked to do more ... and more ... and more ... all because of Gonzalez. But he wasn’t seeing a significant spike in pay. Such is life as an NFL tight end. You are forever underappreciated, which sends Gonzalez into a state of deep thought.

What drives tight ends? Says Gonzalez, one of the best: “insecurity.”

What drives tight ends? Says Gonzalez, one of the best: “insecurity.”

Maybe that’s it. Maybe this is why the tight end position has become such a haven for wild personalities.

“We’re insecure,” Gonzalez says. “Insecurity drives performance. We don’t get paid. We were the second-lowest paid position. Isn’t that crazy? … DBs make more than us. Linebackers make more than us. Obviously, D-line makes more than us. The only position we make more than is a f---ing fullback. And a kicker. And we do the most! That’s been one of the great struggles in my life. It’s so unfair. I don’t f---ing understand it.”

Tight ends today are made-for-TV characters. Sharpe is a hot-take machine. Gonzalez did a movie with Triple X. Vernon Davis is doing a movie with Morgan Freeman. Put a mike in front of George Kittle’s face? “He’s on fire,” Gonzalez says. Travis Kelce, too. Gronk could be mistaken for a Chippendale dancer. Tight ends have become the true entertainers of the league. They never, ever censor themselves. One reason has to be the fact that they are so underpaid. Gonzalez knows that insecurity can drive performance.

In K.C., he couldn’t understand how cornerback Patrick Surtain made twice as much as him only to get toasted. “He was dog s---,” the tight end snipes. “He got beat all the time.”

Life isn’t fair. Gonzalez is grateful for everything he’s been through because playing tight end, he says, forces you to become a better person. The number-one criticism Gonzalez receives, of course, is that he wasn’t a good blocker. Which pisses him off to this day. He didn’t like it then when Mularkey drew that conclusion the first day they met, and he certainly doesn’t like it now when former players make comments on TV. He implores them all, kindly, to “put on the f---ing film.” Of course, he didn’t like to block, but he did it. From Year 1 to Year 17, he had zero choice.

That’s the thing about playing tight end. Your route running may be sublime. Your athleticism may be straight out of a basketball highlight. Your hands could be glue. But you also must be willing to inflict and absorb bruises in the trenches.

“It forces you to do some s--- you don’t want to do,” Gonzalez says. “I’m used to grinding it out.

“The tight end position represents life.”

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