Mr. Reliable: Jason Witten Continues To Do It All For The Cowboys

Lost amid the disappointment of the 3-8 season so far is the fact that Jason Witten is quietly having another career year for the Cowboys. So quiet in fact that hardly anyone seems to notice it. Witten has 60 receptions for 660 yards through eleven games, and at his current pace could come tantalizingly close to another 90+ reception and 1,000+ yards receiving year.

But what’s perhaps even more noteworthy than these volume stats is the remarkable consistency with which Witten has produced his numbers year after year. Look at his yards per reception for the last seven straight years: 11.3, 11.5, 11.8. 11.9, 11.8, 11.0 and 11.0 so far this season.

This year, Witten ranks 10th in the league in receptions, 21st in targets and 23rd in total yards. Again, nice volume stats for a tight end, but where Witten shines once more is in the reliability of his receiving: Among the 30 leading receivers in the league, Witten ranks 2nd with a reception rate of 71.4%.

After the break we look at why all is quiet on the Witten front as well as some NFL milestones that Witten has hit recently or will hit soon.

Why all is quiet on the Witten front

In this age of the mentally disfiguring scourge of fantasy football, most people have resorted to measuring tight ends by their fantasy totals, and look primarily at red-zone touchdowns as the measure of a tight end. This is one reason Jason Witten is often overlooked in discussions about tight ends. This season for example, Witten had the second highest receiving yards among tight ends, but is only ranked 8th among all TEs in the 2010 Positional Rankings for Standard (non-PPR) Scoring leagues.

The Cowboys traditionally like to throw to their big wide receivers in the red zone. Last year it was Roy Williams with 7 TDs, Dez Bryant’s 6 TDs this season underscore this playcalling preference. Add Marion Barber, who is still considered a strong short-yardage runner at least by the coaching staff, and you’ve got a tight end who will always have a fairly low TD total.

Another factor that is completely ignored is the importance of TEs in blocking. Blocking skills are always important for a tight end by the simple nature of where they line up – anybody that close to the line had better know how to block. But most people don’t see blocking, and neither do most stats.

Few tight ends excel at both catching the football and blocking, but Witten is one of the league’s best in both areas. None of the other elite receiving tight ends are in Witten's class as a blocker. Witten can run-block, he can pass-block and will catch almost anything thrown his way. There can be little doubt that Witten is probably the best all-around tight end in the NFL, and despite the team's troubles, Witten may end up with his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl nod this season - and deservedly so.

Career Milestones

With 583 career receptions, Witten is already second on the all-time Cowboys reception list behind only Michael Irvin (750). His 6,625 receiving yards rank him fifth an the all-time Cowboys list behind Bob Hayes (7,295). It’s likely that Witten will close that 670-yard gap sometime in the next season (whenever that will be) to move into fourth place behind Michael Irvin (11,904), Tony Hill (7,988) and Drew Pearson (7,822). It’s also quite likely that Witten could finish his career in Dallas in the number two all-time spot.

50: With his four catches in the win against Detroit, Witten has now recorded 50 catches for the seventh consecutive season, making him just the third tight end in league history with seven straight 50-plus catch seasons (Tony Gonzalez: 12 consecutive seasons, Shannon Sharpe: 7)

60: Witten reached 60 catches this year with his 10-catch performance on Thanksgiving Day against New Orleans. This marks his seventh consecutive seasons (2004-10) with at least 60 receptions, and makes him just the second tight end in league history to string together at least seven straight seasons with 60-or-more catches (Gonzalez: 11 straight 60+ seasons). Witten’s seven total seasons of at least 60 receptions is the third-most by any tight end in league history (Gonzalez: 11, Sharpe: 10).

70: Witten needs ten more receptions this season for his fourth consecutive season with 70-or-more receptions. This would move him into a tie for second spot among TEs with Christensen and Gates, all of whom trail Gonzalez, who has an active streak of seven consecutive 70-or-more reception seasons.

80: With his team-leading 94 catches in 2009, Jason Witten has recorded three consecutive seasons with at least 80 catches. At the current pace, Witten is projected to reach 87 receptions this season, which would make him the first TE in league history with four successive seasons with 80-or-more receptions. For his career, Witten has four seasons of 80-or-more catches, one less than Gonzalez and tied with Christensen in second place on the league’s all-time best list.

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