With 3 TD catches, Robert Tonyan shows potential to transform Packers' tight end position
GREEN BAY - Mom couldn’t hold back the joy. Robert Tonyan did his best to suppress it, play things cool, act like he’d been there before. Which, of course, was difficult to do convincingly, because Robert Tonyan had not been here before.
The Green Bay Packers tight end nary cracked a smile late Monday night. No, Tonyan grunted instead, plopping as he sat down for his postgame Zoom call, his man bun the only ounce of colorful character he showed.
That was until Tonyan peeked down at his phone.
“I need to text my mother back,” he said before fielding any questions.
It was that kind of night for Tonyan in the Packers’ 30-16 win against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. A text-your-mother night. Tonyan’s phone was blowing up after his six catches for 98 yards and three touchdowns — even his good buddy, San Francisco 49ers all-world tight end George Kittle, sent a text, Tonyan said — but there was one person he couldn’t put on hold.
“My mom,” Tonyan said, “I love my mom. She’s awesome. She’s an incredible woman.”
And what did Mom have to say after the night of her son’s life?
“How proud she is that I’m her son,” Tonyan said. “She’s just super proud. She’s done a lot for me over the years, whether it was sending my highlight tape out to college coaches, emailing every single college in America and getting me out there. Just the most supportive woman I ever met.”
Monday night was the reward from a very long journey for Tonyan. It was a night Tonyan always believed he’d reach but could never be sure. He was a quarterback at Indiana State — known for Larry Bird, not football — before switching to tight end. He was undrafted in 2018. He had 14 catches and two touchdowns in his first two seasons.
There were times the Packers might have been tempted to slip Tonyan to the practice squad.
They’re surely glad they didn’t.
“As far as talent-wise,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “we always knew. He’s a talented guy, and it’s a just a matter of time before a game like this happens.”
Tonyan has shown flashes before, but Monday night he showed something more. This was a young player realizing his potential, seizing it, not letting it go. With the Packers missing their top two receivers in Davante Adams and Allen Lazard, someone in their offense had to elevate.
Tonyan answered with the best game of his career, a potential springboard to something bigger.
There he was getting lost in the Falcons secondary a couple minutes before halftime, finding an opening between a linebacker and safety for a 19-yard touchdown. On the next possession, Tonyan beat Falcons linebacker Deion Jones with an inside move for an 8-yard touchdown.
On his third, Falcons defensive back Jamal Carter slipped at the snap and tripped Tonyan, who somersaulted at the 10-yard line. Tonyan rolled to his feet, almost without breaking stride, to find himself open at the goal line for his hat-trick touchdown.
“He was holding me,” Tonyan said, “and we both went to the ground. I’ve been doing yoga twice a week, so I think the somersault helped. I just got back up on my feet, and next thing I know the ball is in the air.
“It’s crazy Aaron held onto it that long for me to get up and throw it to me. But, yeah, that was crazy.”
Rodgers, smiling as he so often has this season, counted his fingers as Tonyan returned from the end zone. One. Two. Three scores. Then he put his arm around the young tight end’s shoulders.
The quarterback knows what Tonyan’s emergence could mean to the offense. Not since Jermichael Finley’s career ended prematurely because of a neck injury in 2013 have the Packers had a sustainable receiving threat at tight end. They briefly found a spark with Jared Cook in late 2016 but foolishly allowed him to leave in free agency after the season.
Tonyan has the potential to be the face lift the Packers’ tight end position needs. If not for a hip injury last season, perhaps Monday night wouldn’t have been his breakout. Perhaps the breakout would have already happened. Tonyan made an acrobatic catch down the right sideline in Dallas, a highlight grab that might have been his springboard, but he landed awkwardly.
He would miss the next five games with an injury Rodgers said Monday night was similar to one Lazard had last week. Lazard had core muscle surgery and is out indefinitely.
“He was really hurting,” Rodgers said. “… Tried to play through it and tried to be out there, and it’s much like Davante (Adams) in ’15, when you see a guy pushing through an injury like that, not making excuses and trying to suit up every single week, you can’t help but gain a lot of respect for them. And I don’t think it was just myself. There was a lot of people who really saw that and saw he was trying to battle to be out there, that he earned a lot of our respect.”
There were signs Tonyan might be on the cusp of something big entering Monday. He had touchdown catches in each of the previous two games. Still, you don’t expect a tight end with four career touchdowns to have three on Monday Night Football. Tonyan became only the third Packers tight end ever to score three touchdowns in a game, joining Finley and Keith Jackson. His five touchdowns this season aren’t just leading the NFL among tight ends, they're tied with Tampa Bay star Mike Evans for most in the league period.
Those five touchdowns equal Jimmy Graham’s total from 32 games with the Packers over two seasons.
It was the type of night you dream of as a kid. Not that Tonyan was letting the nostalgia show. Leave it to Mom to find a way to break through.
Mom, of course, always knows best.
“I’ll probably wake up tomorrow morning with a better understanding,” Tonyan said. “Right now, I’m just happy we’re 4-0.”