Tony Gonzalez: Falcons' Matt Ryan is an 'elite quarterback now'

NFL Media's Oklahoma Drill series presents exclusive, quick-hitting one-on-one interviews with players and coaches from around the league. No nonsense -- just football experiences directly from the source.

Tony Gonzalez

Tight end, Retired

Born: Feb. 27, 1976

Experience: 17 NFL seasons

Interview by Brooke Cersosimo | Jan. 19, 2017

It's an honor [to be a Pro Bowl captain]. I watched Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice do it the last couple of years. I saw that Jerome Bettis, Ray Lewis and Charles Woodson were also doing it and I said, "Absolutely."

The Pro Bowl is an honor, and I don't know why so many people skip it. I skipped it one time because I played the week before, but I always wanted to be out there. So did guys like Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis. We always went, and I want guys to know that there's a specialness there and a bond. It's a fun time to hang out with your adult peers.

The flashes of brilliance are more now. But [Matt Ryan has] always had that brilliance, but it wasn't as consistent. The hallmark of greatness is that consistent play and bringing that -- game in and game out. And that's what you're seeing from him now. He's turned that corner and he's an elite quarterback now. He's MVP of the league. He's more confident when he's dropping back. It's just there at all times.

He did whatever it took in the offseason, and I think that's why he's playing so great because of what happened last year. You have to go through those hard times. I think Matt's in a very good spot and playing some very good football. That's why I'm picking him this weekend.

I remember in my second year in the league, I dropped 17 balls and led the NFL in dropped passes. That made me the player I am. If I didn't go through that transformative power of crisis, none of this would've probably happened for me.

It's a learning process and ["xXx: Return of Xander Cage"] is the first thing I've done, but I know I can get better. I have no doubt I'm going to get better and I take that same approach that I took in football -- at least I'm trying to.

I did my own [stunts], and they paid you extra for it. It was great and the stunts were crazy, too. We were hanging from wires and getting pulled out of the back of planes.

It was nerve-wracking before my first scene. I felt like it was my rookie year all over again. They're very similar. In football, you get your plays. In acting, you get your script. You learn your plays and lines and practice them all week, and you show up to the set or the game and you try to deliver them. You have to be totally in the moment.

I failed a couple of times on set. We were in the middle of my biggest speaking scene, where I first meet Vin [Diesel] in the movie, and I have a quote in there and it wasn't coming out the right way. It's one of those things where you take a deep breath, and I remember Samantha Vincent, Vin Diesel's sister, came up to me and said, "Good job. You should be proud of yourself." And that's probably when I was most proud because I went through that nervousness and scary feeling and came through it.

I have a recurring role on "NCIS" and that's been a lot of fun. But this is different. This is the big screen. ... I auditioned and there were other people there auditioning, so I was nervous as hell -- and I loved it, though. It's really cool to be on this big blockbuster set and seeing all of these amazing actors.

[If Kyle Shanahan leaves Atlanta,] I don't think it'll affect Matt, and I don't think it should. You see these great quarterbacks and their coordinators go and nothing changes. I think Matt is at that point in his career now and it doesn't matter because he's an offensive coordinator. He could be an offensive coordinator or a head coach right now if he wanted to. Hell, look at the guy from the Rams. He's 30 years old. Matt's got more experience than that guy. I'm sure if [Shanahan moves on], Matt will be just fine.

Absolutely, without question. I was done. People say, "Would you go back and play right now?" I'm sure it's going to stop ringing after this year, but the phone has rung the first two years [of retirement] for some really good teams. But no, it's over. After 17 years, it's done. I walked away from the game on my own terms, and there was no stone left unturned for me. I had a great time doing it, but there's no way I could think about going out there and getting hit by another grown man who doesn't like me.

The only playoff game I've ever won. That's probably the best win I've ever been a part of. I know I've never won a Super Bowl, but we celebrated like we won the Super Bowl. I had waited 16 years to win a playoff game and the way we won it, I was crying after the game. I never cried after a game -- ever -- but I couldn't help it. It was such an emotional roller coaster.

I see myself the most in Jordan Reed because I like his route running. I like to think that's really what differentiated me from other players. I could run a good route, and he runs great routes. He's receiver-esque and he still blocks, too.

I like Travis Kelce. He's my alter ego. He's what I wish I could do after he catches the ball.

The Chiefs are a good football team, and there are really no weaknesses on their team. They're going to be a perennial playoff team. At the quarterback position, I love Alex Smith. If he keeps evolving and taking more chances downfield and opening up that offense, because they've got some players, I think that's going to help them. But it's him. I'm putting the onus on the quarterback [to get them over the hump in the postseason].

If you look at the final four and who's left, look at the quarterbacks. It's either that or you have this incredible, once-every-10-year-type defense. There are three Hall of Fame quarterbacks and Matt is probably the MVP and arguably playing better than all of them. I just think if the Chiefs keep building that defense up to what Denver had last year, Alex Smith could win you a Super Bowl. Or he's got to improve his game a little bit and get better. He is a good quarterback because he's going to win 10 or 11 games per year, but if you want to get to the Super Bowl, that's the kind of quarterback you've got to be.

When I was in the NFL, I always played in those summer pro leagues. I tried out for the Miami Heat with Pat Riley and actually made summer league team. Would I have been a great basketball player? No. But I think I would've been a good basketball player, one of those grinders getting eight to 10 rebounds. I would've been like Kobe and been in the gym five to seven hours a day and never missed a 10-foot jump shot. I would've been a great role player for a team.

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