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"It's the beauty of knowing your quarterback, and him knowing you," adds Gonzalez.
With more catches than any of his much younger peers, it's working. But for how long?
For all his preparation, Gonzalez has never been on a team that's won a postseason game. It doesn't define him, but he's angry some pundits would belittle him for the gap in his résumé. "This isn't tennis or golf—or even basketball, where three great players together can win a championship," he says. "This is the ultimate team sport, with 22 guys on the field at once, where you need all three phases of the game working to win big. To say my career has been diminished because I haven't won a playoff game, I say bulls---! I'm a frickin' tight end, not the quarterback. My career will mean nothing less if I'm never on a team that wins a playoff game."
Tell us how you really feel.
As for the future, there's a wild card at play. The NFL has new rules, agreed upon in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, that shorten the formal off-season training program by a month, eliminate two-a-day training-camp practices and limiting to 14 the number of padded practices that teams can hold in-season. That will certainly lengthen careers. Defensive end John Abraham—one of Gonzalez's teammates on the Falcons and, at 34, in old age—imagines playing two or three years longer than he might have because every day but Sunday will be less physically taxing.
All Gonzalez knows is that, sore thumb aside, he feels great now. He acknowledges that there's no good reason he couldn't play beyond 2012. But he's said already that there's a 95% chance this is his last season. I asked him about it twice in October, and nothing has changed. It's still 95%, the 5% because he wants the right to change his mind in the winter.
"You play four more years," I tell him, "and you can probably break Jerry Rice's record."
"Maybe," he says. "But...." His voice fades away.
Gonzalez is 354 catches behind Rice. Let's say he ends this season within 310. He'd need to average 78 grabs for four years to pass Rice. In four of the last five years he's caught 80 or more. It's dubious that his health will hold up—he's closer to 37 than 36—but he's missed only two games in his career. You never know.
But Gonzalez knows. "I never want to be looked at as average," he says. And there are other things he'd like to do. During the Falcons' bye week he guested on Fox's pregame studio show. The camera loves him, and he loves it back. He knows he's smart enough to do television. And he thinks he owes it to his family to be there more for them.