Well….somebody has to give this man – this heroic figure in Cowboy lore – his due. I have not come to bury Witten (as some of us may have been thinking about after the first couple of games this year), but to praise him.
We’re all familiar with the infamous quarterback drought that the Cowboys suffered through after Aikman retired in 2000; yet after Jay Novacek suffered a career-ending injury before the 1996 season, the team wandered in the proverbial tight end desert for seven seasons. During that dry spell, they relied on mediocre players like Eric Bjornson, David LaFleur, Jackie Harris, Tony McGee and other marginal talent. For a team that once had tight ends like Mike Ditka, Billy Joe DuPree, Doug Cosbie and Novacek, it was the worst of times. No wonder Aikman’s quality of play was middling to barely above average from 1996 on.
But in the Spring of 2003, Bill Parcells would end up choosing a former defensive end turned tight end, a player who would become his version of Mark Bavaro and Ben Coates – only better. And who among us knew when they drafted that Tennessee tight end in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, that the Dallas Cowboys would be set at the position for the next decade, that they had collected a player who would earn two All-Pro spots and play in seven Pro Bowls, and that this Volunteer would become the team’s leading receiver of All Time?
I think I first realized that Witten was something special in the 2003 late-season matchup against the Carolina Panthers. The Cowboys were ahead 24-20, needing to run out the clock but were facing a 3rd and 8. Then Quincy Carter hit his rookie tight end for a 13-yard gain to seal the victory and the Cowboys were finally "winners" after three straight 5-11 seasons.
Of course, a few weeks earlier we learned just how tough this 21-year old was when he broke his jaw in three places catching a pass against Arizona. That was also the game that Emmitt Smith came back to play in Cardinal red, only to rush for (-1) yards on six carries before suffering a serious injury of his own (courtesy of Darren Woodson, I believe). It’s almost as though one Cowboy Legend ended on that day, only to see another Cowboy Legend begin on the same field. Witten tried to keep playing but ended up missing one game. ONE GAME! In the 151 games since that day, Witten has missed exactly NO games. Not one. We’ve seen the beating he’s taken – the 53-yard catch and run without a helmet, the injured spleen, and the inevitable bumps and bruises that come from playing a position that requires a fairly large amount of blocking huge defensive monsters. Yet Jason Witten’s streak of playing games continues unabated and uninterrupted. Cal Ripken’s got nothing on our own Ironman.
Probably my favorite Witten season was 2004, when he built upon his decent rookie season by smashing all team tight end records with 87 catches for 980 yards. He was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise disappointing team that year. I’ll never forget the 42-yard touchdown bomb he caught against the Packers or the huge game he had against the Eagles on Monday Night Football (9-133-2), or even the onside kick that he recovered against Seattle in another MNF game that turned out to be a classic for Cowboy fans.
Witten’s production slipped a bit with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback ("just" 66 and 64 receptions in 2005 and 2006), but when Tony Romo took over he found his new best friend. What, you didn’t know Witten and Romo were BFFs? That they stay up late at night drawing up plays together? And that they go on vacations to Cabo together?
But serious, it’s obvious that Romo and Witten have a connection with each other, as #82’s numbers took off once Romo became entrenched as the Cowboys starting quarterback. Witten caught Romo’s first touchdown pass as a starter against Carolina, and who among us will ever forget Romo rolling out to his left late in the game at the Giants and throwing a 42-yard bomb to Witten to set up the game-winning field goal? Or that Witten caught the game-clinching 3rd down conversion against the Seahawks in the NFC Wildcar Game, only to be overturned by the refs and, well...I'll just leave it at that.It's ALWAYS going to be "too soon" for that travesty.
Witten has had nine games with 10 or more receptions, all with Romo at QB, including the three highest single-game totals in Cowboys history.
I could go on all day reminiscing about what Jason Witten has done so far for the Dallas Cowboys and for us as fans, but some of us have to work around here. So in conclusion, I’d just like to say…How could we ever think that Anthony Fasano or Martellus Bennett could ever replace you? Forgive us, Senator!