By Zach Walker
The Dallas Cowboys are spoiled for choice of transcendent stars. If it’s a position on their football team, they’ll have a matching legend to accompany it. To make the cut, a player must be better than great, and at the tight end position, the Cowboys have a dealer’s choice over who is top dog.
The 1970s featured Billy Jo DuPree, the Cowboys first great homegrown tight end who never missed a game in 11 seasons and a player I feel has gone under-appreciated in Cowboys lore. In the 80s it was Doug Cosbie, who set the benchmark in statistical terms for what great tight ends can do. In the 90s Jay Novacek, a true star on the “Team of the Decade,” racked up numerous Pro Bowls and All-Pro awards while winning championships with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. And in the current era, there is Jason Witten, the gold standard of consistency with nobody even a close second. But what’s his edge in the argument for greatest tight end in team history?
STARTS WITH DURABILITY
His game is football, and football players get injured, and if a player plays for 11 seasons, he’s probably got his share of surgical scars. Not Witten. Of 176 possible games, he’s played in 175. That ‘s one game missed with a broken jaw which means he’s only missed that game with injury. That doesn’t mean he didn’t still have that same broken jaw the following week of his rookie season.
Witten’s durability has been so epic it has postponed the careers of several tight ends brought in through the draft. Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett both were drafted in the second round and both sat in the wake of Witten and waited until teams rescued them from under his legend. Even when all looked serious, suffering a lacerated spleen against Rolando McClain in the opening 2012 preseason game in Oakland, his timetable looked to take his recovery past the season opener against the reigning-champion New York Giants. Even with the opener being scheduled earlier, Witten made the start and made two catches. Unbelievable is the perfect descriptor to his 2012 season. After a shockingly un-Witten like game in a loss in Seattle, he never looked back and had the greatest receiving season by a tight end in the National Football League with 110 receptions.
A LOOK AT THE STATS
There is no overlooking Witten is an undisputable top-10 tight end of all time, and top 10 is just his foot in the door. If records, accolades, and awards all were physical trophies, it would take up a guest house amount of space. There’s the nine Pro Bowls, six All-Pro selections, three Tight End of the Year awards, most catches in a game (18) and in a single season (110). Plus, he currently ranks No. 2 for most career catches by a tight end with 879.
Even looking past these stats, what Witten does to opposing defenses is an aspect of his game that is underrated and essential to the Cowboys success. He is able to steal the focus of defenders and open up options for Tony Romo through the air. But I suppose that his most important aspect is what he does for Romo’s confidence in being exactly where he needs to be on every play.
With sure hands and crisp routes, Romo has found that Witten is THE go-to-guy in tight game situations. Dez Bryant might begin to take up that mantle of late-game, game-sealing receiver, but that will only come from what he’s learned from Witten, and a tighter rapport with Romo.
WHAT MAKES HIM A LEGEND
It’s not just leading the franchise in receptions, not just because he’s built like a Terminator, and not just because he’s the longest-tenured Cowboy on the roster. It’s also about his off-the-field work.
Many players around all league try to use their star status to prevent young girls and boys from going through the same unfortunate adversities they went through as children and young adults and Witten has worked to do exactly that. His SCORE foundation inserts mentors into battered women’s shelters around Texas to surround children there with positive male behavior in an effort to break the cycle of domestic abuse.
His Jason Witten Football Camps in his hometown of Elizabethton, Tenn., are some of the most highly-attended free football camps in America. He is one of the only Cowboys on the current roster to go to a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, he did not go as a participant, but as the recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award given for a player’s charitable community work and on-field performance.
But players really don’t want individual awards and Pro Bowls. They all want that Lombardi Trophy for winning the Super Bowl. In the meantime, I believe the Walter Payton Award means the most to Witten because it’s a confirmation his efforts to help children and prevent future domestic violence aren’t going unnoticed and the community is better by his leadership.
THE HERE AND NOW
And that brings us to now. Witten is entering his 12th season and at age 32, it’s really only to be expected that he will eventually have to slow down but I wouldn’t bet against him. This is the NFL, and it’s a business, and Jerry Jones is the best businessman in the league. Heck, Jones cut DeMarcus Ware. Granted Ware’s performance and health were on a two-year decline.
Despite his age, Witten’s targets aren’t going down and his touchdown catches trended up last year. All I know is, if Jason Witten ever becomes a cap casualty, it’s not going to be easy to get over, on or off the field.
Information about Jason Witten’s SCORE Foundation was taken from www.jasonwitten82.com