GREEN BAY, Wis. – The last time Robert Tonyan had dropped a pass, Joe Philbin was the interim coach, DeShone Kizer was the quarterback and the Green Bay Packers were finishing a turmoil-packed 2018 season with a 31-0 loss at home to the Detroit Lions.
Tonyan didn’t drop any passes in 2019 or 2020, according to Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions. That wasn’t much of a feat in 2019, when he caught 10 passes in 11 games. It was a major accomplishment in 2020, when Tonyan caught 52 passes plus another eight in the postseason to give him an 18-game total of 60 receptions. No tight end since Dallas’ Jason Witten (77 receptions in 2015) caught more passes than Tonyan in a season without a drop, according to PFF.
That impressive streak of 70 catches without a drop ended in the opener against the New Orleans Saints last week. The pass wasn’t very good and the play would have gained only a yard or two, anyway, so, in the grand scheme of things, it probably had zero impact on the 38-3 loss. Nonetheless, the rare miscue seemed to be a harbinger of things to come.
“I didn’t even really think about that – which is good that I didn’t think about that until it popped up on the board that (the coaches) gave me a drop,” Tonyan said on Friday. “But, last year, they gave me a couple of drops that ESPN didn’t give me. But, nah, just next-play mentality, have a short mind-set because the ball’s going to come to me eventually again, so I’ve just got to be ready for that rather than hanging my head on that.”
Tonyan has the best hands on the team. Coming off his sensational 2020 season, Tonyan caught everything thrown in his vicinity during a terrific training camp. After tying Kansas City’s Travis Kelce for most touchdowns by a tight end last season with 11, he entered this season as a key cog on a deep and diverse offense.
Last season, of the 34 tight ends who were targeted at least 40 times in the passing game, Tonyan was No. 1 in catch percentage (89.7), drop percentage (0.0) and passer rating (148.3), according to PFF.
“I know how miraculous his season was last year and having the ability to catch everything and every target thrown at him,” position coach Justin Outten said. “For a tight end, that’s pretty rare. Those are going to happen throughout a season. It was something that we brushed off and moved onto the next play, and it’s not something you’re going to sit there and pout about.”
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“It’s good having him back. He’s a stud. He’s a future Hall of Famer,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
Tonyan’s brilliance last season is a far cry from how he started his NFL career.
In 2017, after migrating from quarterback to receiver at Indiana State, Tonyan went undrafted but signed with the Detroit Lions as a tight end. He was released at the end of training camp and was out of football for three months before joining Green Bay’s practice squad for the final month of the season.
From those humble roots, the Packers have the standout tight end they lacked for years after missing on the likes of Richard Rodgers, Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook, Jimmy Graham and Jace Sternberger.
Tonyan, however, says he doesn’t face the Lions with any extra juice.
“Not really, it’s just another team, another opportunity to go showcase what this offense is about and what this team is about,” Tonyan said. “Don’t really have like a chip on my shoulder or bad blood necessarily like that. Just another good opponent to go out there and play football and show who we are.”
In two games against Detroit last season, Tonyan caught seven passes for 61 yards. He scored in each game.
Tonyan swears he doesn’t face the Lions with the thought of showing them what they missed out on a few years ago. After catching just two passes for 8 yards last week as part of the offense’s all-around dismal performance, he’s got other things on his mind.
“That’s something they have to deal with,” he said. “I’m just worried about us.”