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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.


Buy The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football

“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.”