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The Aging Of an Ageless Wonder: Is Jason Witten Finally Slowing Down?

People have been predicting Jason Witten's imminent decline since 2007 and the Dallas Cowboys themselves tried to draft a replacement for him two years ago.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There's simply no question that Jason Witten is one of the greatest Tight Ends to ever play the game. If you look at receiving records for tight ends, the only name that sits above him with any consistency is Tony Gonzalez. If you look at receivers in general, there's still only one player younger than him with more receiving yards - Larry FItzgerald. Calvin Johnson remains about 100 yards behind him as of the end of the 2014 season. Some will say Witten isn't a threat to score or a very good red zone receiver, yet he has more TDs than Vernon Davis, Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace, or Dwayne Bowe. He needs only 5 TDs to pass Shannon Sharpe for third on the all-time TE receiving TD list.

That's a Hall of Fame resume. There's no question.

But the last two years his production has slowed. Worse still, his slight bump in 2012 can be attributed almost entirely to the ridiculous, career-high, 147 targets he received that year. His yards per catch was way down (a career-low 9.4) and despite all those targets he only scored three TDs. Make that year part of the decline and he's basically gone downhill since his league leading first-team All Pro performance in 2010 (though it's hard NOT to fall off from an All Pro year, especially for a player entering his 30s).

It sounds grim for the old warrior.

There may be reason to believe, however, that reports of Witten's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Let's hypothesize that 2012 was an aberration. The offensive line started off as a large question mark and suffered multiple injuries in the interior from there, leading to a starting Guard and Center both acquired off the street. This led to a very-pressured Tony Romo who had to find his safety blanket often and quickly, which would account for the large number of targets and extremely low yardage per catch.

So let's just throw 2012 out of the equation, What do we see?

Games Games Receiving Receiving Receiving Receiving Receiving
Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD
2004* 22 DAL TE 82 16 15 122 87 980 11.3 6
2005* 23 DAL TE 82 16 16 89 66 757 11.5 6
2006* 24 DAL TE 82 16 15 90 64 754 11.8 1
2011 29 DAL TE 82 16 16 117 79 942 11.9 5
2013* 31 DAL TE 82 16 16 111 73 851 11.7 8
2014* 32 DAL TE 82 16 16 90 64 703 11.0 5

This table is a list of Witten's first three Pro-Bowl seasons alongside his last three seasons (excluding 2012). When he first emerged on the NFL map, his performance was very similar to his last three seasons. While his yards per reception did have a slight downturn last year, 11.0 is still a very solid number, and the 18 TDs he scored in those three years represent almost a third of his total career TD production. There's still very strong value there and his most recent Pro Bowl selection is not a pure reputation pick as his season is commensurate with previous Pro Bowl seasons for him.

Still, there's a dip in his yards per catch in 2014 and the question has to be asked: can Witten still threaten the deep seam?

Some of you may recall this play from the second Philadelphia Eagles game, last year

Any guesses as to who that Cowboy is? Not Dez Bryant. The other Cowboy, running 25 yards further downfield than Dez, drawing two Eagle defenders at the 5-yard line, leaving no one within the wide angle picture covering one of the most dangerous players in the NFL? That would be Jason Witten.

Now, naturally, anyone can simply run down the field to a spot. Maybe the Eagles defense just made a boneheaded mistake and didn't need to cover Witten with safety help like that. The very next week the Colts took that approach and Tony Romo became the franchise leader in passing yardage with this play:

2nd-11, Tony Romo pass complete deep middle to Jason Witten for 25 yards, touchdown

I know this capture is a bit blurry, but the main picture for the article is the same play, if you'd like a clearer shot.

So, it seems the old warhorse can still get it done from time to time. It may be that Toby Keith's song lyrics are apropos here: He ain't as good as he once was, but he's as good, once, as he ever was.

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