Twenty-three-years old, better and better with each succeeding week, Gonzalez all at once appears to be the best tight end in the league. His stock has exploded like an Internet IPO. Who is better? Mark Chmura of the Green Bay Packers is injured. So is Shannon Sharpe of the Denver Broncos. Ben Coates of the New England Patriots is having a down year. Gonzalez has caught 61 passes, already a Kansas City season record for a tight end. So are his 10 touchdown receptions; six of those have come in the past four weeks.
Against the sad Steelers he caught just about everything thrown within 10 feet of him, reaching, twisting, turning, plucking passes from the air on those 58 television screens against the wall of the nation's electronics departments as Christmas shoppers stopped to stare. His best play might have been a block, a wicked shot to Pittsburgh All-Pro middle linebacker Levon Kirkland that helped spring wide receiver Derrick Alexander on a winding, 82-yard end-around for a third-quarter touchdown that closed all accounts.
"Tony Gonzalez hit that guy so far...," Chiefs first-year coach Gunther Cunningham said, looking fruitlessly for a proper description. "I don't know how far. He just hit him. That was typical of the plays we've been getting from him."
His timing with perpetually criticized quarterback Elvis Grbac is getting better and better. Gonzalez runs a route, turns, and the ball is there. He is as agile as a wideout, as big as a pine tree planted in the middle of the field. The pine tree dunks the ball over the crossbar when he scores his first touchdown in a game. After his second score on Saturday, he threw up a 15-foot jumper for variety.
"We had a great situation in practice one week," Cunningham says. "Donnie Edwards at outside linebacker is an athlete, a lot like Tony. The same size, same age. A team was going to play Tony with a great linebacker and we used Donnie to impersonate him in our practices. It was something to see, those two guys just going at each other. You couldn't take your eyes off them. It was just this pure one-on-one game."
Says Grbac, "Tony's confidence level is so high he believes he can catch anything you throw at him."
The click-in began about a year ago. The Chiefs were heading toward a 7-9 finish under coach Marty Schottenheimer. Gonzalez was marching in step. The 13th pick in the 1997 draft as a junior out of Cal, he'd been a backup as a rookie and was in his first season as a starter. He would wind up with 59 catches, but 11 games into the season he had only 35 receptions and he hadn't caught a touchdown pass. He'd also dropped 13 passes. Wasn't this kid supposed to be this great two-sport athlete who had scored 23 points in a 1997 NCAA tournament win over Villanova? Where was this athleticism? The kid was wondering the same thing.
"One of the sportswriters in the city grades performances," Gonzalez recalls. "He gave me a D-minus. I'd never gotten a D-minus in anything. D-minus? People were stopping me on the street, calling me at home, asking what was the matter. I didn't have an answer. I'd never worked so hard preparing for a season. I'd put in all these hours in the weight room, out on the field, and I had nothing to show for it. I was confused."
The confusion was partly the fault of the Kansas City coaches. Intrigued by the idea of mismatches featuring a man too fast for linebackers to handle and too large for safeties to cover, they had put wrinkles into the offense for him, "broadened his plate too much," in the words of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. The decision was made to simplify his job and make it fun again. "You've played in Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl," Raye told Gonzalez. "You can't get any bigger than that. Just relax. You're pressing."
"I'd slam the ball down after I dropped it," Gonzalez says. "I'd be on my knees, pounding the ground in frustration. It was all inexperience. You have to get up and forget. I couldn't do that yet."