Jason Witten has had a remarkable career. Production, durability, leadership - he’s the consummate professional and a sure Hall of Famer. But after 15 years in the rough waters of the NFL, a body can get beaten down. Over the past few seasons of Witten’s playing days, his numbers had dipped and he wasn’t very elusive after the catch, once he caught the ball that was likely all the yards he was going to get. That was okay, considering he could still get himself open and provide a safety outlet for Dak Prescott, and his leadership abilities and work ethic were still highly valued by the Cowboys.
If nothing else, when Witten decided to un-retire after a year’s absence from the team the Cowboys were getting back those leadership qualities and a guy who would set a great example for the young tight ends, and generally the young players on the roster. That much has already been borne out.
As much as Witten would like to work quietly, teammates naturally defer to him. At Travis Frederick’s Block out Hunger charity event last week, Witten was in the middle of every conversation of the nearly 25 players in attendance. They hung on his stories and jokes.
What he did in 15 NFL seasons carries weight.
”He’s as good a leader as I’ve ever been around,” [Zack] Martin said. “It’s really great for the rookies that were rookies last year and the rookies this year to have such an incredible example for us to look at and see what it takes to be where he’s at.”
There have already been numerous stories about Witten’s return and how the players are already responding to his presence. Dak Prescott, among others, has spoken about his leadership and how he just makes things better in the locker room. Typical quotes are like this one from Sean Lee:
“It’s like he never left,” said linebacker Sean Lee, Witten’s second-longest-tenured teammate. “To see him run, he’s running great. He’s competing like he always has. It’s so fun to have him back just because of the great friendship we have with him, the leadership he shows. You come to work every day knowing Witt’s going to bring it, and you’ve got to take your game and work ethic to the next level.”
Typical compliments about Witten’s leadership and work ethic. Basically, about setting an example for being an NFL professional. That’s fine, but if Witten is really going to make an impact, he has to be able to produce on the field. That’s the true test of his return; is he physically able to do it again after all these years plus a year away from the game?
Lee’s quote above offers a hint of what we’ve been hearing, that physically Witten is looking good. Lee says he’s running great. Some other teammates have taken it a step further and claim that Witten has turned back the clock
Multiple teammates have said Witten looks to be running faster than he did when he left. One said Witten ran the fastest 20-yard split of his career recently. While calling games for ESPN, Witten kept in good shape, but he dropped some pounds that he has had to put back on to handle all that the Cowboys ask a tight end to do.
Coach Garrett concurs.
“He looks fast, he looks quick, he looks flexible and is moving around really well,” the Cowboys coach said.
Okay, this is all likely hyperbole in the offseason. It’s unlikely that Witten ran the fastest 20-yard split of his career at his age and after all the pounding his body has taken in the NFL. Still, it is instructive that observers feel Witten is looking physically able and maybe even has a little spring in his step after taking a year off to recharge.
Witten didn’t come back just to be a mascot for leadership and work ethic, he cam to play football. To compete. To win.
He may not be able to beat Father Time, but he might be holding his own in that battle for one more year.