The Curious Case of Tony Gonzalez
When Tony Gonzalez entered the NFL, Liar Liar, Titanic and Men in Black had just been released to theaters. The Spice Girls were relevant, and Notorious B.I.G had only been deceased for a month. Rob Gronkowski, a fellow tight end in the league, was eight years of age.
Gonzalez’s durability in the National Football League was (I can say “was” now, right?) certainly one of the reasons he’s the best tight end to ever play the game. His numbers, though, tell an even crazier story. And, clearly, his statistics are of huge importance to us fantasy football nerds.
We speak of the word “value” often in fantasy football, as it tells us who the most important players are to the game. In short, when a player is far and away the best at his position, that player holds value. Looking back at Tony Gonzalez’s 16-year career, there is, without a doubt, no player that has been more important to his position for a longer period of time than the Kansas City turned Atlanta tight end. Nobody.
I’m talking like, better than Peyton Manning numbers here. Tony Gonzalez, in terms of fantasy football (and real football, I suppose), has arguably been the most consistent player ever. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at some numbers.
He entered the league in 1997 and was the 19th best fantasy option at tight end during his rookie campaign. He never looked back. Gonzalez, in his next 15 seasons, finished as a top-10 tight end in all but one. He finished as a top-3 option ten different times.
There was a stretch – between 1999 and 2004 – where Tony Gonzalez was either the best or second best tight end each year. In fact, between 1999 and 2009, Gonzo finished 7th once, 5th once and 1st through 3rd at tight end in every other season.
He was unstoppable.
Part of the Gonzalez intrigue throughout his career was his ability to produce through multiple tight end eras. In his first five seasons, he consistently fought off players like Jeremy Shockey, Todd Heap and Shannon Sharpe. After their careers plummeted or finished, Gonzalez’s continued at an elite pace. He’d face off against Antonio Gates as the best tight end in fantasy over the next 7 or 8 seasons, with Jason Witten and Dallas Clark making names for themselves as well.
Gates’ playmaking ability has since fallen, as has Dallas Clarks’. But Tony Gonzalez? Not at all.
To give his numbers some more perspective, let’s compare him to the fantasy elite, Jason Witten. The Cowboys’ tight end entered the league in 2003, and has now completed 10 NFL seasons. He has two first place tight end finishes, one second place finish and one third place finish. Tony Gonzalez, in that amount of time from the beginning of his career, was a top tight end three times, a second place tight end three times and a third place tight end once. It’s just not even close.
His Benjamin Button-like DNA became evident when he went to Atlanta late in his career. Gonzo, at age 35 and 36, was the 4th and 3rd best fantasy football option at tight end (2011 and 2012). And it’s not like he’s playing a position – like kicker – that takes few hits. He’s a tight end for crying out loud. Tony Gonzalez, for all intents and purposes, defied all physical logic. He completely revolutionized the way we look at tight ends.
And we never wanted to believe him. Gonzo’s average draft position was favorable throughout the meaty portion of his career, but at the tail end, we thought he was a fake. This past season, he was, on average, the 10th tight end to be selected in redraft formats. In 2011, the majority of fantasy football owners selected Antonio Gates, Jermichael Finley, Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham and Owen Daniels before they took the aging wonder.
All he did was produce. And all we did was question his ability.
Drafting in August will never be the same with the probable departure of Tony Gonzalez. He showed us that career-long consistency at a fantasy position outside of quarterback is possible. He allowed us to see what dedication and honest playmaking ability can do to a fantasy lineup. He told us all, with his play, to reach for a fantasy position that you could generally wait on.
Most importantly, Tony Gonzalez taught us all one important lesson in fantasy football: You should never question greatness.