KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Almost 10 years after Kansas City traded up to draft a rugged two-sport star from Cal, Tony Gonzalez is better than ever.

His career has already encompassed production levels known only to the elite tight ends in the game. He could retire today and be remembered as one of the all-time greats.

But his skills, say those who play both with and against Gonzalez, are as dazzling and as dominant as when he first reached the Pro Bowl in 1999.

“What he’s done on the football field, it’s staggering,” Chiefs coach Herm Edwards said.

Gonzalez’s last three games – victories over playoff contenders San Diego, Seattle and St. Louis– are as impressive as any three-game span since he snared his first NFL pass in 1997. In a 30-27 win over the Chargers, he caught six passes for 138 yards. The next week against Seattle, his six catches netted 116 yards, including a key 2-point conversion pass in a 35-28 victory. Then last week at St. Louis, he caught five balls for 63 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs won 31-17 to stay one game behind San Diego and Denver in the AFC West despite a slew of injuries.

“He is the best. He is simply the best,” said quarterback Damon Huard.

Still only 30, Gonzalez has caught more touchdown passes (59) and amassed more yards from scrimmage (8,265) than any other player in Chiefs history. He holds the NFL single-season tight end record with 102 catches, and his 686 career receptions trail only Shannon Sharpe among tight ends.

That would be production aplenty for most careers. But in his 10th season, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Gonzalez is dragging tacklers down the field like when he was a rookie. On some plays, he’s fought for as much as 10 extra yards after initial contact. His 504 yards receiving halfway through the season find him in a familiar spot, leading all tight ends.

His blocking, something most fans overlook, is also better than ever.

So where exactly is this fountain of youth he must have happened upon?

Actually, Tony G these days prefers not to talk about Tony G.

“I think people get tired of hearing someone talk about himself all the time,” said Gonzalez, never one to hog the spotlight. “Why don’t you talk to people who know me?”

OK.

“I’m glad you asked,” said Chiefs tackle Jordan Black.

“I’ve been wanting to say this. There were some plays against San Diego where Tony and I needed to double-team somebody. But all of a sudden, I feel the guy cave over to me. I thought, “Who did that?’ I looked, and it was Tony. That’s a dimension to his game that a lot of people don’t see. People think of Tony Gonzalez as just a great pass receiver and they don’t realize he’s also a great blocker.”

After studying film of Gonzalez for Sunday’s Chiefs-Dolphins game, Miami defensive end Jason Taylor could only shake his head.

“Everyone is aware of Tony Gonzalez all week,” Taylor said. “We talk about him all week. Yet, you continue to see him make plays you wouldn’t think are available to him. He’s that kind of player.

“You pay attention to him, you prepare for him. But then you see him running wide open, still making the same moves over and over, still beating his guy and catching balls that you think for sure will be incomplete or intercepted.

“He’s one of the all-time greats at his position.”

One ability that’s always set him apart from his peers is the way he catches balls with his hands only, a skill he credits to basketball.

“There are (wide) receivers in this league who don’t catch the ball with their hands,” said Taylor.

Chiefs safety Sammy Knight, who has known Gonzalez as both a teammate and a foe, calls him “a consummate professional.”

“He goes up and makes great catches, but he’s also a great blocking tight end. That’s one part of his game that people don’t focus on,” Knight said. “He’s a receiver, a fullback, a running back. He is a complete football player.”

He’s also in his final contract year. The Chiefs are having ongoing talks with Gonzalez’s agent, hoping to convince their all-time receptions leader to finish his prodigious career in the same city where it began.

“I sure hope they’ll work something out,” said Black. “There are a lot of great players who have played. But I really don’t see anybody being better than Tony Gonzalez.”

Added Edwards, “I think one day he’ll be given very strong consideration for the Hall of Fame for all that he’s done.”

AP-ES-11-09-06 1505EST



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