FLOWERY BRANCH — Tony Gonzalez is having a harder time saying goodbye to the NFL than he imagined.
As he prepares to host 40 family members and friends in Atlanta's season finale, Gonzalez sounds as if he isn't entirely ready to walk away.
When the Falcons announced in March that he would return this year, the 13-time Pro Bowl tight end was "100 percent certain" he would retire after the season.
Now Gonzalez wonders if he could change his mind again if Atlanta returns to playoff contention next fall and general manager Thomas Dimitroff gives him a call.
"I'd have to cross that bridge when I get to it, but right now I don't have any plans," he said. "I know for sure I won't be on an opening day for roster anybody. I'm going to— this is it. This is it."
Meeting with reporters Friday, Gonzalez focused most of his answers on the end of his career.
The 37-year-old insisted that he's pleased to "go out on his own terms" and added that he's "thankful for the opportunity" to have stayed healthy and productive for 17 seasons.
Gonzalez ranks second in career catches, fifth in yards receiving and sixth in touchdown catches. No NFL tight end ever put up such numbers, but Gonzalez hardly returned this year to pad his stats.
He craved playing in his first Super Bowl, winning a championship and making a legendary exit.
The Falcons, though, never had a chance.
Julio Jones, Sam Baker and Kroy Biermann suffered season-ending injuries. Sean Weatherspoon played in only seven games. Roddy White made 12 starts and Steven Jackson made 11, but both players were hurt most of the year.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was harassed all season behind a weak offensive, and Atlanta's defense was gouged repeatedly for big plays.
Not surprisingly, Gonzalez's production dropped off as opponents double-teamed his routes.
In October and early November, Gonzalez openly discussed his frustration and held out hope that the Falcons could still turn the season around.
By the first of December, though, Gonzalez took a different approach with reporters, reminiscing about his early morning drives from hectic Buckhead to the picturesque mountain view at team headquarters.
He talked about missing quality time with his kids but also feeling grateful to former teammates and coaches in Kansas City and those he's worked with in Atlanta the last five years.
"I know I could come back and play a couple of more years if I wanted to, but it's time for me to go," Gonzalez said. "It's time for me to get back to my family, get back to California, where I'm from and explore that next chapter of my life. I'm going to have fun with it."
Television work is a possibility for Gonzalez, but playing football might not be out of the question.
The Falcons, after all, signed him to a two-year, $14 million contract last March, and if they get off to a strong start next season, Gonzalez might reconsider, but he stopped short of saying that he plans to file retirement papers with the NFL.
Then again, the aches and pains of a 16-game season aren't getting easier, this despite the Falcons' allowing him to miss over three weeks of training camp and preseason games last summer.
"Like I said, don't anybody ever feel bad for me," Gonzalez said, smiling. "The things I've accomplished in my career are more than anybody ever deserves."
With one full day remaining before Atlanta (4-11) hosts the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers (11-4), Gonzalez is eager to go out with a victory.
He had a good ride with the Falcons in his first four years, helping the team go 45-19 and win his first playoff game last January.
But after narrowly beating Seattle in the divisional round, Atlanta fell 10 yards short against San Francisco in the NFC title game.
"You never know when it can come to an end, and that's always been my approach," Gonzalez said. "I've never said that I've arrived with my accomplishments. I've never, ever said that that's good enough for me or I've caught enough balls to last a lifetime. I always wanted to keep working and keep working in case this is it, and now that I'm coming into my last one, I'm glad I've done it that way.
"It worked out, and hopefully I'll carry those habits into my next career, whatever that is."