In Praise Of Jason Witten: From Lacerated Spleens To Option Routes

Yes, Jason, you are number one. - Ronald Martinez

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has built a Hall of Fame legacy. On one hand, this is due to seminal moments such as a helmetless run or playing with a lacerated spleen. On the other, it's based on relentless technical perfection, play after play. Today, we celebrate both aspects of The Senator's game.

During Wednesday afternoon's presser, Jason Garrett was asked about Jason WItten, specifically about whether the Cowboys' head coach wondered, when Witten injured his spleen on a hit suffered last year at this time, whether the tight end would ever play again. Garrett immediately launched into a story about the discussion he had with Witten soon after The Senator received the official diagnosis.

According to Garrett, Witten immediately pronounced, "I'm playing in that Giant game." Somewhat incredulously, the coach looked at him and wondered aloud how he thought he was going to accomplish this: "what are you going to do the next couple weeks?" Witten responded, "I have to be motionless in my bed for two weeks" - i.e., the bulk of the remaining time between the diagnosis and the Wednesday night kickoff in New York.

Redball went on to articulate this story's importance:

Forget 110 catches, forget eight-time Pro Bowl, forget all that stuff. When you tell the Witten story, I start with that one, because I think he showed what he's all about, what he's been doing for a long time in this league, and a great example for the rest of our football team and, really, for the rest of humanity and the whole NFL. That's how you do it. He's really a tough guy, he's an amazing guy, and we're lucky to have him.

Garrett has long championed Witten, so it comes as no surprise to see him praise number 82 on the eve of a preseason road game in Oakland that marks the defining moment of Witten's career (despite some stiff competition from a couple of others: his playing through a broken jaw suffered early in his rookie campaign. And his legendary helmetless run in a 2007 game at Philadelphia).

But what makes the greatest players great, as Garrett implies when mentioning Witten's eight Pro Bowls, is that they produce with alarming consistency for a number of years - 90+ catches in four of the last six seasons, for example. Indeed, Garrett has held up Witten as his model player (the ideal "RKG") from the outset, in his first seasons as the Cowboy's offensive coordinator. In particular, he has praised the tight end's - wait for it - approach, his complete, utter and absolute professionalism in the way he conducts himself in all aspects of his life (this is how Garrett can say that Witten is an example for "the rest of humanity").

Even observers who don't think highly of the Cowboys single out Witten for praise. In a piece appearing yesterday on Grantland, Chris Brown of Smart Football fame, apparently forgetting DeMarcus Ware, writes that Witten has been "the Cowboys' one consistent bright spot over the last several years," and then spends the rest of the article telling us exactly why that is. Let's give him the floor for a moment:

What makes Witten special is how he uses a natural knack for getting open at football’s highest level. It’s a backyard principle that he’s made work in the NFL, primarily with what is known as an option route. As its name implies, receivers on an option route don’t just run x-many yards and simply break in or out. Instead, they have several choices within the same play, all depending on what the defense does. For the Cowboys, Witten’s "routes" are often a suggestion: Just get open.

Brown offers a key distinction between the option routes that Witten runs and the conversion routes that are one of the West Coast Offense's staples. In a conversion route, as many as four receivers read the coverage and, depending on what they see, run a specific set of patterns. The option route is more like the current NBA: four guys clear out so that the good scorer can go one-on-one. Similarly, with an option route, one or more players run clear-out routes designed to create operating room underneath. Witten then follows the directive: Just get open.

Although this sounds a lot like sandlot football, it's actually quite technically precise. For Witten, the first order of business is to "attack the defender's leverage" by running right at him, which will reveal whether the coverage is man or zone. If he sees zone, the tight end is instructed to break off his route about 8-10 yards deep and turn to face the quarterback. If it's man coverage, he should "step on the defender's toes" - i.e., sell a deep route and then break it off depending on the defender's leverage (if he's playing outside, Witten breaks inside, and vice versa).

What this means, of course, is that the exact same play can look different depending of the defense. Brown offers nice gifs of two plays from the second Giants game last season (a contest in which Witten caught 18 passes), both the same play, from a three-wide set. In the first, New York deployed in a classic Tampa-2 coverage, with the MLB dropping into a deep middle zone. The linebacker on Witten played him hard to the inside, so The Senator took him upfield and cut sharply to the outside for a nice gain. Later, when the Cowboys return to this play, the Giants are in man under and Witten is covered by a nickel back, who has outside leverage. As he's supposed to when facing man coverage, Witten runs at him, then cuts sharply inside to make the reception.

As he faces the downside of his career, Witten's game increasingly resembles that of former Utah Jazz great Karl Malone (who happens to be the father of Cowboys offensive tackle Demetress Bell): making up for what he lacks in raw speed with a combination of power and balance, seasoned with a sophisticated understanding of physics, which allows him to gain leverage. As Brown writes, not everybody has the vision and recognition powers to become an effective option route runner, but Witten is a natural. And, Brown writes, Witten's talent at this specific element of the Cowboys offense - among his others - will one day land him, like Malone, in his sport's Hall of Fame.

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