By George Henry
The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Tony Gonzalez had to wait until his final season to strike a perfect training camp balance for both him and the Atlanta Falcons.
NFL players routinely are excused from practice to address serious personal matters, but it’s very rare for them to get big blocks of time away from the team for non-emergencies.
Gonzalez, though, had plenty of leverage with the Falcons after helping them advance to the NFC title game last season and earning his 13th Pro Bowl invitation.
So the two sides struck an accord to suit them both.
Gonzalez, 37, agreed in March to put off his retirement to return for a fifth year in Atlanta and 17th overall. In turn, the team agreed to let him miss parts of training camp so could spend extra time with family and watch his 12-year-old son Nikko practice football in California.
“Right now, I’m here, but there were some obligations I made to my family, more specifically to my son last year around this time, because I was going to retire,” he said. “I wasn’t joking about that last season.”
On the first day of training camp last year, Gonzalez told reporters that he was 95 percent that 2012 would be his last season.
But after Atlanta fell 10 yards shy of winning the NFC title, Gonzalez told himself the Falcons were too talented — and that he was still playing at such an elite level — that he might regret not trying one last time to reach the Super Bowl.
After all, it took 16 years for him to finally win a playoff game. Now he has a chance to help Atlanta, which earned a No. 1 playoff seed in 2010 and ’12, win the Lombardi Trophy.
“This is my last season, and I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “This is going to be fun — just being with the guys that are on this team and with the fan support — the sky’s the limit on what we can do, but we have to work hard. We know we’re a long way away from where we were last year, and it starts with that first game in New Orleans.”
Neither Gonzalez nor coach Mike Smith said how many days the player will miss, but both added there’s no cause for concern. Both insist the absences won’t affect his job performance.
“There’ll be some time that he’ll be here in training camp, and some time where he won’t,” Smith said. “I think those decisions were made prior to him deciding whether he was going to play again. We’re glad he’s here. He’s going to be here for a while, and then he’s going to be gone. Then he’ll be back.”
Added Gonzalez, “I’ll join the team early. I’m not going to be showing up the week before the game. I’ll be out here a lot earlier than that, but I’ll be ready to go, too. You can bet the house on that.”
In past years, Gonzalez never tried to hide his disdain for training camp. Too much work that caused too many bodies to wear down during in the season, he often said, but the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement limited the number of workouts and how much players had to wear pads.
It helped further that Smith routinely gives players in his “over-30 club” extra time off during the season, and Gonzalez appreciated that the Falcons had allowed him in past years to miss all of the offseason workouts.