SAN FRANCISCO — The Buffalo Bills' No. 1 believer before last season might've been Tony Gonzalez. The 14-time Pro Bowler who redefined a position picked Buffalo to be in the Super Bowl.
And one reason Gonzalez — first all-time in receptions, yards and touchdowns among NFL tight ends — picked the Bills to go the distance was who they signed at tight end: Charles Clay. The Bills made the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Clay the fourth-richest tight end in the league last season... but Gonzalez does not view Clay as the fourth-best tight end.
He described 2015 as a down year for the tight end and hopes it'll drive him.
“No. Not right now. No. Certainly not this year," said Gonzalez, who's now a CBS analyst. "But that could have something to do with the offense. There’s a lot of different things that go into it. I still think he’s a very good football player. Just because you have one down year doesn’t mean you can’t bounce back.
"In fact, honestly, that’s when you have your most growth. I know for me I had my worst year in the second year in the league. And I came back and went to the Pro Bowl the next decade. So it was one of those things — embarrassment drives you. I don’t know if he’s embarrassed or not but I certainly think he’s unhappy with what happened this year and he’s going to go out there and get it right.”
Gonzalez absolutely turned his own career around in a major way. Through his 12 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and five with the Atlanta Falcons, he became the standard at his position, arguably the best ever.
Numbers-wise, Clay didn't necessarily struggle in Year 1 with the Bills. The former Miami Dolphin caught 51 passes for 528 yards with three touchdowns in 13 games, in addition to playing a pivotal role in the ground game as a blocker, before landing on injured reserve with a back injury. Not to mention, the Bills staged a three-way quarterback competition in training camp and the passing game revolved around the deep ball to Sammy Watkins.
Tyrod Taylor rarely risked throws over the middle of the field to the likes of Clay. Maybe the average production wasn't his fault.
Still, this is a team paying Clay to do much more at $38 million over five seasons. And in 2016, Clay is scheduled to make $13.5 million, highest among all NFL tight ends. Translation: they're seeking a Jimmy Graham-like impact, or something close to it.
Gonzalez needs to see more before putting Clay in the top tier.
“He’s capable of going out there and putting up 80 catches a year," Gonzalez said. "He’s an 80-catch-a-year guy. He’s got that type of talent. And I think he’s a top 5 tight end, especially the way he runs routes and has the hands. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Staying healthy will be priority No. 1. Earlier last season, there was a report that Clay needed to have his knee drained "at least" six times during the 2014 season, a report that Clay later brushed off.
Somehow, Gonzalez was able to play 270 games in his career. There's some luck involved, he admits. He knew how to fall, how to avoid killshots. For Clay to fully capitalize on his talent, Gonzalez says, staying available is important.
"Health plays a big part of that and I don’t know if that happened to him," Gonzalez said. "Maybe that was part of it. If he can stay healthy, I’m sure things will fall and he can put up good numbers.”
No, Gonzalez won't be picking the Bills to win the Super Bowl any time soon.
“Probably not yet.”