The Dallas Cowboys place a high value on youth. Most of their stars are still relatively young in NFL terms, and of course the record setting duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are just entering their second seasons. The draft was focused on bringing similar youth to the defense. All that fresh talent is being relied upon for the 2017 campaign.
But whatever you do, don’t forget one senior member of the team, Jason Witten. He is the third-oldest member of the current roster at 35, with only long snapper L.P. Ladouceur and backup QB (and likely future release) Luke McCown older at 36. But so far in the preseason, he has looked like he found the Fountain of Youth. In only 46 offensive snaps, or roughly two thirds of a normal game, he has been targeted eight times, all of which he caught, for 98 yards (12.25 yards a catch) and a touchdown.
Here are a couple of highlights.
Those are vintage Witten catches. The kind he made for years when he was playing with Tony Romo. And now, the new kid on the passing block has found out just what a reliable target Witten is.
That is a major development that could pay huge dividends for the Cowboys this season. It reflects just how much Prescott has grown, something that Witten himself has noted.
Jason Witten on Dak's accuracy in camp: "I can't recall a ball that was thrown to me that wasn't exactly where it was supposed to be."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 28, 2017
Last year, it was pretty clear that Prescott’s go-to receiver was Cole Beasley. Now he is adding a second in Witten. Good luck to NFL defenses trying to shut both of them down while a now-healthy Dez Bryant is still lurking out wide.
But the story of Prescott’s growth has been well-covered. Witten’s return to top form has largely flown under the radar in camp this year, until the preseason game against the Oakland Raiders put a spotlight on it. Witten was the top receiver, getting six receptions for 74 yards and that touchdown. He seemed to be able to get open whenever he wanted, and was getting down the field more as well. Never exactly fleet of foot, he has always relied on his savvy and skill to get open. But this year, he looks more nimble than in the past few seasons.
More than anything, though, he looks like the fire is really burning inside. Maybe all that talk about how age was catching up to him is having an effect. Or it could be that he sees the offensive talent around him and is feeling a bit inspired to make a run before time does run out. Whatever it is, his limited play in preseason has been very impressive. If he carries that into the regular season, he could have one of his best years - conceivably the best of his career.
That would be simply stunning. But even if he just sees a turnaround in the very real decline in production he has had, it would be a major gain for the team. After a six year run from 2007 through 2012 where he was over or very near 1,000 yards receiving per season, he dropped steadily to just 673 yards in Prescott’s rookie season.
Sometimes, it takes a bit for that chemistry to develop between a quarterback and his receivers. That looks to have been accomplished during the offseason and training camp. More importantly, in the preseason games Prescott was definitely attacking the middle of the field, Witten’s office, a lot more than he did in his rookie campaign. And Witten has just embarrassed younger, faster, supposedly more nimble defenders to get open. Then, as always, he has reliably brought the ball in.
There was a lot of faith among the Cowboys faithful that Prescott was going to take the next step in his development this year, the feared “sophomore slump” be, um, danged. But no one really was looking for Witten to suddenly find his peak game again. If he continues this into the regular season, defenses are going to face what could be one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the league - one that had already established their reliability with the fewest dropped passes in the NFL in 2016. Add in an even more accurate and confident quarterback . . .