The handwriting on the wall is so clear that even Anthony Gonzalez himself can see it.
As he rehabs another in a seemingly endless string of injuries, it’s time to put into context just how unusual a career he has had.
Through his first two seasons, Gonzalez totaled more than 1200 yards receiving, 90 catches, 7 touchdowns, and averaged better than 13 yards a catch.
Only 71 other players in NFL history had accomplished as much in their first two seasons.
Gonzalez had more catches, yards, and touchdowns in his first two seasons than Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark had in their first two years. In two playoff games, he had 10 catches for 176 yards and a touchdown, and averaged 17.6 yards a catch. He was poised to become a major NFL star.
Then suddenly it was over.
We didn’t know it at the time, but as he crumpled to the turf in the first quarter of the first game of 2009, but his career with the Colts was all but over. If indeed he does get cut after battling a hamstring injury all preseason, he will have followed up his incredible start to his career with just five more catches. It’s an incredible shock that player with no injury history in his entire career could collapse so rapidly and completely.
To find an analog to Gonzalez, you have to go back 60 years. Five of the 71 wideouts are just now entering their third season, but among the others, there hasn’t been a wideout start a career so promisingly and have it all end so suddenly since Fran Polsfoot. Polsfoot went to a Pro Bowl for the Chicago Cardinals in his second season in 1951, but blew out his knee in year three and caught no more passes for the Cardinals. He later caught 11 passes with Washington and was out of the league four years after his career began. No other wideout who started as strong as Gonzalez has had anything remotely approximating his instantaneous decline.
Of the 71 others who reached Gonzo’s production 52 of them went on to have Pro Bowl or All Pro seasons.
In the last 60 years of NFL football, there has been no wideout quite like Anthony Gonzalez.
Recently, I was asked to compare Gonzo to former Colt E.G. Green who also battled injuries. In truth, there is no comparison at all. In three years, Green had 54 catches, 665 yards, 2 touchdowns, and averaged 12.3 yards a catch. Gonzo virtually doubled those totals in just two seasons. Green was never productive for the Colts, whereas Gonzo gave the team quality seasons before succumbing to injuries.
Despite playing only two real seasons, Gonzo still rates as the 52nd best player taken in the 2007 draft. Some may be surprised to realize that despite the injuries, he was still worth no worse than a second round pick. Though the end is disappointing, the fact is the Colts got two highly productive years out of him, and managed to recoup much, though not all, of the original value of the pick. Through two seasons, he looked to be as sure of a sure thing as you can get at wideout. He had elite production and was on course for multiple Pro Bowls. He is proof positive that not every great pick works out in the long run. The NFL is too violent and unpredictable to speak of guarantees.
For Gonzo, it was about more than just ‘potential’. He was a highly productive NFL wideout, who very likely will be out of a job in a few days. It’s a sad story, and a perfect example of just how fickle fate can be when it comes to injuries in the NFL.
*Note: Donnie Avery of the Rams posted similar year 1 and 2 numbers (with a lower YPR), and blew out his knee missing all last season. Coincidentally, Avery was selected 33rd overall in the 2008 draft. Avery is still on the Rams, and if he makes the roster and produces at all, then Gonzo will remain alone as the rarest of cases.