By PAUL NEWBERRY
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — While the Atlanta Falcons hustled their way through a drill Tuesday, Tony Gonzalez grabbed a clipboard from an assistant coach, a bit perplexed about what was going on.
Yep, even after 17 seasons in the NFL, he needed a bit of a refresher.
Not surprising, though, given he hasn’t been around a whole lot during the preseason.
“Of course I’m a little rusty,” Gonzalez conceded after a more than two-hour practice. “There’s nothing like playing the games to get you ready.”
The 37-year-old tight end will finally play in his first preseason game Saturday night, when the Falcons (0-2) visit Tennessee to take on the Titans (0-2). He was excused for three full weeks to spend extra time with his family and watch his 12-year-old son, Nikko, get started on his football career.
It was all part of a deal Gonzalez struck with team officials in exchange for putting off retirement for one more year.
“Everybody is busting his chops a little bit,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “That’s the nature of the locker room. But it’s all in good humor.”
Coach Mike Smith has always been willing to let players — especially the veterans — skip practices if they need to address personal issues. But he’s never come close to allowing a three-week break in the middle of training camp.
For a player of Gonzalez’s stature, however, the coach was willing to make an exception.
“I don’t think it’s an issue,” Smith said. “I don’t think it will ever become an issue.”
Gonzalez returned to the Falcons last weekend, and Tuesday’s workout was only the fourth day of practice he’s taken part in since camp began on July 25.
He insisted it’s not a big deal. Gonzalez has always been passionate about his fitness, so there was no chance of him not reporting back in top condition. To stay in some semblance of football shape, he worked out with a local high school team. To keep up with what the offense was doing, he watched videos of practice each night on his iPad.
“It’s the same verbiage. The offense hasn’t changed. It’s the same thing I’ve been doing for five years,” said Gonzalez, referring to his time with the Falcons. “Sure, there’s a few little tweaks, some new things here and there. … But when you come back, it’s like riding a bike.”
Gonzalez never intended to come back for a 17th season, saying throughout 2012 he was “95 percent” sure it would be his final year. Even after the Falcons came up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, losing to San Francisco in a thrilling NFC championship game, the future Hall of Famer sounded like his career was over.
But, after spending a few weeks reflecting on how close he came to a title, and knowing the high-powered Falcons had a chance to make another deep run in the playoffs, Gonzalez began to reconsider. When Nikko gave his blessing for dad to play another season, Gonzalez couldn’t resist the chance to take one more shot at his first championship.
The Falcons made it easy, basically allowing a very grateful Gonzalez to set his own terms for how much time he would spend at training camp.
“That means everything to me,” he said.
Gonzalez said he was concerned “a little bit” about the reaction of his teammates, how they would feel about him being excused for such a lengthy period while they all had to go through the grind of training camp.
Ryan quickly put those fears to rest by giving his blessing.
“He’s the leader of this football team,” Gonzalez said. “When Matt was OK with it, that was good enough for me for me right there.”
Ryan, who completed a nearly $104 million contract extension just as camp was beginning, expects to quickly recapture the rhythm he’s had with his tight end throughout their time together in Atlanta. Last season, they hooked up for 93 receptions — the most by Gonzalez since his final year with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 — plus a huge catch that helped the Falcons rally for a victory over Seattle in the divisional playoffs after they squandered a big lead.
“He’s a guy who works extremely hard and takes care of himself extremely well,” Ryan said. “He’s only been back for two days, and we’re already doing the same things we’ve been doing the last four or five years.”