GREEN BAY, Wis. – In 2013, Robert Tonyan completed merely 34.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns as Indiana State’s quarterback.
In 2014, the Sycamores moved him to receiver – the key move in a winding road that led him to the end zone three times in the Green Bay Packers’ 30-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night at Lambeau Field.
Afterward, he got some congratulatory texts from his biggest fan.
“I love my mom,” Tonyan said. “She’s awesome. She’s an incredible woman. I appreciate it.
“She’s just super-proud. She’s done a lot for me over the years, whether it was sending my highlight tape out to college coaches, e-mailing every single college in America and getting me out there. Just the most supportive woman I’ve ever met.”
In three seasons as a receiver at Indiana State, Tonyan caught 20 touchdown passes and topped 2,000 receiving yards. He went undrafted in 2017 and signed with the Detroit Lions but failed to make the roster. He was out of the NFL for three months before the Packers made him a late-season addition to their practice squad.
With height and speed, his potential was obvious. He contributed a little in 2018 and was off to a good start in 2019 before an injury sent him to the sideline for five weeks. Entering 2020, the door was open for someone to grab hold of the position manned the previous two seasons by Jimmy Graham. Tonyan barged through the door.
His three-touchdown performance made history. According to Pro Football Reference, since 1950, only two Packers tight ends had scored three touchdowns in a game: Jermichael Finley vs. Chicago in 2011 and Keith Jackson vs. Tampa Bay in 1996.
With that, Tonyan is tied for the NFL lead with five touchdowns. Those scores required only 14 targets. In 149 targets in 2018 and 2019, Graham caught five touchdown passes.
“Robert and I have had a good connection since he got here,” Rodgers said. “I just appreciate his work ethic, his approach. I think he’s a really good pro. Like the great pros, when there’s something you’ve got to work on, he’s very critical of his own game and always trying to improve. You would think that’s a normal thing for every single player. It’s just not. There’s guys who are just kind of wired a little bit different. I think he’s got a really good feel for the passing game. He’s done a better job blocking. He’s just a solid all-around player, got great hands.”
To be sure, there weren’t any legendary plays against a defense that was the worst in the NFL by points and was down four key members of the secondary by night’s end. On a third-and-14 late in the first half, he blew past the linebacker, caught a pass from Rodgers around the 3 and bullied his way through the safety for a 19-yard touchdown. A couple minutes later, Tonyan got open on a crossing route for an 8-yard touchdown. Finally, on a third-and-3 with about 5 minutes left in the third quarter, he was pulled down by the safety, got up, broke for the end zone and was wide open for a 21-yard touchdown.
“I had a corner route,” Tonyan said. “Moved him outside and slipped back inside. He was holding me and we both went to the ground. I’ve been doing yoga twice a week, so I think the somersault helped. I just got back up on my feet and, next thing I know, the ball is in the air. It’s crazy Aaron held onto it that long for me to get up and throw it to me.”
The Packers used third-round draft picks on Jace Sternberger in 2019 and Josiah Deguara in 2020 but it’s Tonyan who is clearly the team’s biggest threat at the position. He’s worked hard to turn himself into a weapon, including two offseasons with the best tight end in the NFL, San Francisco’s George Kittle.
“Constantly I'm thinking about making plays, all day, whether I'm at home on my couch, sitting, I'm just thinking about making plays, just playing the game over and over in my head,” he said. “I think the game has slowed down for me and is coming to me a lot easier. There's a lot of things I want to keep improving on and getting better at and change, but being mentally at peace when I go out on that field, it's so relieving. That's really like my getaway is just to get out on that field and play football and be happy. I'm with my brothers and it's a great time.”