Jason Witten is one of the best tight ends in the history of the NFL...and he has the stats, character, work ethic, and mentality to back that statement up. Not that he would ever make such a claim to greatness, he'd just tell you he always strives and works to be one of the best. Though even that may be too brash for Witten to say out-right, but it's easy to see.
Jason Witten has been in the league eight years and is a 7-time Pro Bowl selection. Back in 2007, he tied Kellen Winslow (Sr.) for most receptions by a tight end in a game. He was 25 at the time, and even back then he was showing the signs of greatness. In an interview he was asked about the record, and as usual he was modest, humble, and grateful. He said he wasn't paying attention to it during the game, and hadn't concentrated on it too much since the team was focused on the playoffs, but it was special. He said he was sure it "will dawn on [him] one day looking back" and to just be mentioned with some of those great tight ends was an honor, but he was focusing on the playoffs. Never content, not looking back, not bathing in or striving for the glory of records, Witten was just focusing on what the team was trying to do, working towards the rewards of the playoffs. Talk about the right kind of guy.
In any case, the debate on whether Witten is the best tight end in the league is an annual event, but I want to look at it from a different angle. The stats have been reviewed and they are compelling. The toughness has been captured by images of a bloodied and helmetless Witten running down the field. The character is easy to notice in his interviews, work on the practice field and fight on the football field, not to mention the foundations and charitable events and humanitarian awards on his resume. But I have a question and a theory. I think Jason Witten is so good, he is allowed to substitute his own route for the one designed in the play so the offense can take advantage of his ability to read defenses.
A preseason mistake could be proof...
Ironically, I want to help portray Witten's genius on the football field and how it goes beyond speed and strength, but it seems a great way to do so is by reviewing what happens when it is removed from the equation. No, don't worry; Jason Witten didn't suddenly lose his football mojo. But a preseason mix up with Tony Romo shows what a big difference the intangibles of reading coverages and "being on the same page" as your quarterback can make, especially for a tight end working the middle of the field...or one that has his own option route.
I still contend on the list of athletic tight ends Witten would be pretty far down the list. He doesn't have that speed or vertical jump of a down-field "receiving" tight end, nor is he the strongest "blocking" tight end in the league. But I think he may be the smartest, or at the very least, one of the hardest working and most dedicated tight ends ever. He's not a freakish athlete like Antonio Gates or Jermichael Finley, but he can prove just as effective and likely more reliable than either. Why? Because he can read defenses and create openings for his quarterback. Situational football at its best. Jason Witten isn't just the all-in-one tight end because he is a great blocker and receiver. Because of these intangibles, he can create all-in-one routes too. The TE route tree is usually comprised of routes to attack the seams downfield and to stretch the field, or to control the middle of the field and provide a safety outlet with under and out routes. But Witten can provide all those things in one route...the Witten Option.
I don't know what it is named in Jason Garrett's offense, and other tight ends do have option routes, but I believe Witten has earned the respect and trust of his coach and quarterback enough to grant him the "option" almost every time he runs a pattern. He is smart enough not to ruin the play design by turning a first-read seam route into a quick out, but wise enough to opt-out of it if he is the 3rd read to take advantage of overzealous man-to-man or deep-zone coverages.
Usually after running five to eight yards downfield, depending on the situation, Witten will have the option to complete the route into virtually any in the tree. He can make it a button-hook and turn back towards Romo, he can make it an out-route and cut towards the sideline, he can continue it into a fly pattern up the seam, slants, ins, depending on how he reads the field Witten can find a way to get open. Few receivers and tight ends have this many options this frequently in a playbook, but I believe Witten has mastered it and I wouldn't be surprised if Coach Garrett trusts him so much that the majority of times Witten goes out on a route he can free-lance and make it a Witten Option. Of course, this means that Witten and Romo must both know how the route will finish depending on the situation on the field. I can't emphasize enough and repeat how paramount trust must be to allow such an option route so often. But I think it is happening with the Cowboys and a testament to Witten's greatness, though sometimes on the stat sheet it is merely a five yard reception.
If you can watch the DEN@DAL preseason game again, in just that one drive with the starters, you can see the Witten Option twice.
The 3rd play of the Cowboys opening drive: 1st and 10, shotgun 3-WR set with Witten on the line across from the lone receiver. I think this play was designed with Witten as the second read though primary receiver. My personal take: What I like to call the Witten Option is dialed up on 1st down with the intent to either make it 2nd and short or take advantage and hit them deep, but Garrett also added a brilliant twist. Dez Bryant is out wide on the left with Miles Austin in the slot beside him. It seems the play (at least this variation) was designed to make the defense worry about Miles and Dez, in this case shifting the safeties to shade that side, though Romo never looked left.
Before the snap, Witten has read the field, likely making the same deductions as Romo, and can see the corner on his side is playing off coverage, the safety is deep, and the outside linebacker is likely assigned to cover him. At the snap, Kevin Ogletree and Witten go straight up the field. The corner has turned his hips and is playing man coverage over top, so the first read - Ogletree deep - is covered. Witten has run seven yards downfield, and now has his option.
With the corner's back turned Witten could possibly make it an out or flag route, but the linebacker managed to get over top Witten, so the smartest play is to hook back and make the catch while boxing out the linebacker. It's the classic Romo to Witten throw and catch, often for a first down. In this case, with good coverage so no broken tackle or yards after the catch, it merely made it 2nd and five. Not too bad for a "worst case" successful play.
Later that drive, however, a preseason mistake shows why the option route can be dangerous. Looking back at some odd interceptions involving passes to Witten, I have come to believe they were growing pains of Romo and Witten mastering that connection for an unspoken, pre-planned option route. It appears some preseason rust made Captain America seem human, as Witten didn't run the route like Romo expected. It could be that the pass was just a bit off, but...
2nd and 10 and Garrett calls the same formation, but this time Miles is in the slot between Witten and Ogletree, and this time they are facing a nickel defense. The two corners are playing off coverage (again) and this time Witten does not appear to be the primary receiver. Romo has a good pocket and has time to go through his progressions, Miles and Ogletree don't get open, but the entire right side of the field has been vacated. I think it wasn't just a bad throw or split second timing mistake. I think, but can't prove, that this was a preseason lapse of judgment. I think the route for the TE on that play is a 6-yard curl route (my personal differentiation is a hook you turn back while facing the outside, while on a curl you turn towards the inside of the field), however, while Witten was playing it by the book on the first drive of the preseason, Romo expected a Witten Option.
I think in the regular season this is one of those plays were Witten ends up stiff arming the linebacker and then running up the side lines. It looks like Witten didn't notice that both corners and the safety got cleared out and he sat on his curl route too long before breaking towards the sidelines. I think in the regular season, Witten is much quicker in and out of the curl route, the Witten Option turning into an almost post-corner route to step inside and then create separation by slanting it out towards the sideline. I think Romo expected the Witten Option, and not just a tight end making a move after his route was complete...but that's just me.
What do you think?