FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. —
"We know what he's capable of doing on the football field," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "But Tony is a mentor to so many players in that locker room. He's not a guy of many words, but when he comes to work, he comes to work. We always tell the new guys in the locker room, 'See that guy over there? Mimic what he's doing.'"
Gonzalez's influence has surely rubbed off on players such as receiver Julio Jones, already a Pro Bowler in just his second season. Even Roddy White, who already was one of the NFL's better receivers when Gonzalez was acquired by the Falcons after a dozen seasons in Kansas City, has picked up a thing or two since No. 88 arrived.
"I'd like to think I've helped them with their routine," Gonzalez said. "I'm a big believer in routine. Yeah, you can talk about being great. When young guys come in, I ask them their goals. They all want to be Pro Bowl players. Well, how are you going to get there? You can't just say you're going to work hard. That's so ambiguous."
He'll encourage them to settle on some well-defined goals — say, catching 50 balls before practice, 50 balls during the workout, and 50 balls afterward. Whatever works, make it a habit. And keep looking for ways to make the program even better. Even at his age, Gonzalez still tweaks his regimen if he comes upon something new that might give him an edge.
The 49ers (12-4-1) will have their hands full trying to defend everyone in what Gonzalez calls the PYP offense — Pick Your Poison. But the ageless tight end could be even more of a factor Sunday, facing a defense that doesn't stray far from its base packages and relies heavily on its linebackers in coverage.