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A legend retires, Jason Witten’s Cowboys legacy

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The 15-year vet retires as the modern day version of Mr. Cowboy.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

What if Jason Witten retired and nobody noticed? Because that happened; or almost happened; or may have happened. While the NFL world performed the annual draft rites of player evaluations, immediate hot takes, and insta-grades, it was rumored that the fourth-most prolific pass catcher in NFL history intended to hang up up his shoulder pads forever.

That initial report came on Friday afternoon, prior to the second round of the draft. The immediate reaction of virtually every Cowboys fan, after “what the heck”, was “I guess we’re gonna draft a tight end”. It’s not the usual reaction a certain Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame member receives upon announcing his retirement. But with all eyes on the upcoming draft picks, there wasn’t as much attention being paid to Witten’s situation.

At the time, the news wasn’t definitive. Witten met with Jerry Jones that day and spent a while mulling over his options. In the end, he decided to go ahead and do it, according to reports this morning.

Now, with time to catch our breath, we can chronicle the unrivaled career of one Christopher Jason Witten.

It’s difficult to capture everything Jason Witten gave to Dallas Cowboys fans, coaches and teammates over his 15-year career. His on-field accomplishments are numerous and we’ll document them all. However, his contributions as a leader and role model is perhaps where he made his biggest impact. He was named the 2012 Walter Payton Man of the Year. His influence hasn’t been limited to the Cowboys either, as Witten has become an outspoken speaker on the issue of domestic abuse.

Jason Witten’s Score Foundation was established in 2010:

Seven years ago, the foundation launched the Jason Witten SCOREkeepers program, a unique initiative placing full-time, trained male mentors in battered women’s shelters throughout Texas. The mentors seek to demonstrate positive male behavior to the children living in these shelters in an effort to break the cycle of violence that plagues families affected by abuse. With the help of generous grants from the Allstate Foundation, Jason Witten’s SCORE Foundation has placed SCOREkeepers in six shelters across the Lone Star State

Witten also established the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award in 2017, to be awarded to the college football player “who has demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field”. Shaquem Griffin was the honor’s inaugural recipient.

If ever there was an award that properly captured the essence of the man it was named after, it would be the Jason Witten award. Some legendary players lead post-NFL careers that are as impressive and accomplished as their time on the field and I’m pretty sure Jason Witten will do great things in the next stage of his life. At this moment, it looks like some of that time will be spent analyzing NFL games on TV.

On-Field Accomplishments

Having said all that, Witten will be enshrined in the NFL’s Hall of Fame and the Dallas Cowboys’ Ring of Honor for his on-field accomplishments. So, let’s look at where he stands as his career ends. We’ll start with the simplest and purest expression of NFL greatness, simply stepping on the field. Jason Witten retires having played more games as a Dallas Cowboy than anyone. Ever.

Only seven players have suited up with the Star on their helmet more than 200 times; Witten retires 40% towards the next century mark. (I had no idea L. P. Ladoucer has been with the Cowboys this long; I knew it was a long time but he’s creeping up an impressive list here).

Witten also retires among the team’s top all-time performers as measured by Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric:

Say what you want about the AV metric, that’s a legendary list of names that anyone should be proud to be listed among. Of course, Witten ranks among the franchise’s best in virtually every receiving category:

This particular table astounds me. Dez Bryant has the third most catches in team history, yet he has fewer than half the number of Jason Witten. Michael Irvin, in second place, lags by more than 400 catches. No one is remotely close to Witten’s 1,152 career catches and that is a record that is going to be extremely difficult to break. A player would have to stay with the Cowboys for 12+ years and average nearly 100 catches per year to match Witten’s final catch number.

Witten also ranks first in franchise history in receiving yards, slightly ahead of Michael Irvin. After those two no one else is really close. In fact, Witten has 50% more receiving yards (12,000+) compared to the next four names on the list (Hill, Pearson, Bryant, Hayes) all under 8,000 yards.

There was speculation that had Witten played in 2018 he also would have claimed the franchise’s all-time touchdown reception lead. That’s very possible. He needed only five more to match Dez Bryant’s mark of 73. Instead, he retires as the third-most prolific touchdown recipient in team history.

Finally, something that jumped out as I was looking at Witten’s numbers; according to Pro Football Reference, Witten fumbled eight times in his career. I don’t know exactly what that number represents but I believe it is all fumbles, regardless of which team recovered. Considering how many times Witten caught the ball that’s an absurdly low number:

In fact, 35 Cowboys have fumbled more times that Jason Witten, including players like Duane Thomas (who played only two seasons with the Cowboys).

Of course, Witten ranks high in a number of NFL lists as well. He finishes fourth, all-time, in catches:

The top eight names on that list are either Hall of Famers or soon-to-be Hall of Famers; the last two have good arguments for inclusion in the Hall. In short, this is a list of NFL receiving legends and Jason Witten is right there among them.

Of course, Witten ranks second all-time in receptions among tight ends. Notice how far the fifth-ranked tight end (Ozzie Newsome) is behind Witten (nearly 500 catches). (Note: Harold Carmichael wasn’t a tight end; he played as a wide out but for some reason PFR lists him as a tight end. I wouldn’t agree.)

A very similar table for receiving yards. Tony Gonzalez is well-regarded as the best tight end ever, but Witten has out-distanced every other tight end in NFL history in both catches and yards. However, Witten doesn’t quite rank as high in terms of touchdown catches. He simply wasn’t the unstoppable red zone target that Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Rob Gronkowski have been.

Whew. Just scan through these tables and look at the names and numbers. These are legends; the best of the best and we see the words “Jason Witten” in every one of them and frequently at or near the very top. Finally, just a list of miscellaneous accomplishments that are worth noting:

NFL records:

  • Most receptions in a single season by a tight end: 110 (2012)
  • Most receptions in a single game by a tight end: 18 (October 28, 2012)
  • Most consecutive games played by a tight end: 239
  • Most consecutive games started by a tight end: 229

Dallas Cowboys records:

  • Most receptions in a single game: 18 (Oct. 28, 2012)
  • Most consecutive games played: 239
  • Most (consecutive) seasons with a reception, touchdown, scoring: 15

Cheering for professional sports can at times be spiritually deflating. The players are real people, real humans, and like all of us are imperfect. Money introduces billions of reasons that tell us it’s all a business. All the bad behavior, arrests and the other controversial off-field stuff can be as draining as a last-second playoff defeat. Jason Witten is the kind of player who makes it all worthwhile. It’s one thing to be given the gifts required to play NFL football at the highest level; it’s something else entirely to also be given the gifts required to be a great person.

Jason Witten is all of that, and more. So long #82, you can never be replaced.