It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Jason Witten is fourth in career receptions among all players in NFL history, second among tight ends in receiving yards, and fifth among tight ends in receiving touchdowns. So he has to be the best tight end in Cowboys history, right?
As we’ve gone through the early stages of this series, there’s been a few overwhelming consensus picks for best in franchise history at their position. Roger Staubach won best quarterback with 59% of the vote, surprising given the presence of Hall of Famer Troy Aikman in the discussion. Less surprising was Emmitt Smith winning best running back with 84% of the vote.
Witten might be able to set a new record for largest percentage of votes received in this series, but that’s not to say that he’s the only great tight end in franchise history. In fact, the Cowboys have had several great tight ends play for them over the decades.
One Cowboys tight end who deserves some recognition is Mike Ditka. Sure, he wasn’t as successful as a player in Dallas as he had been in Chicago, but Ditka’s time in Dallas came at the end of his playing career and helped shape the early beginnings of his coaching career. After four years playing in Dallas, he retired and joined the Cowboys as an assistant coach. Serving under Tom Landry helped Ditka grow into the Super Bowl winning head coach he became in Chicago. While he may not have done much for the Cowboys as a player, Dallas certainly did a lot for him.
But there’s three tight ends from the Landry era that stand out for what they did do on the field. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that this was an NFL where tights ends were used primarily as blockers and throwing to them wasn’t really a common concept. So while statistics weren’t overly impressive, you can’t discount the impact made by Pettis Norman, Billy Joe Dupree, and Doug Cosbie.
Norman signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 1962 and eventually became their starting tight end because of his stellar blocking skills. He helped block for leading rusher Don Perkins, which helped lead the Cowboys to their first tastes of success as a franchise. While not being used as a receiver very often, Norman did post 183 catches for 2,492 yards and 15 touchdowns in his nine-year career in Dallas. Those were solid numbers for a tight end in the 60’s.
Norman was later succeeded by Ditka for a couple years before Dupree came on to the scene. Known for his pass catching skills, Dupree saw more usage in the passing game than anyone in franchise history at the time. He led the team in receiving yards his rookie year with 392, and he surpassed that mark the next year. From 1976 to 1978, Dupree racked up 1,536 yards and 14 touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl each of those three years and winning a Super Bowl ring. Dupree finished his 11-year career in Dallas with 267 catches for 3,565 yards and 41 touchdowns, a franchise record that lasted until Witten broke it decades later.
As Dupree’s career wound down, Cosbie gained more playing time as the backup. By the time Dupree retired, Cosbie was ready to take over the starting job. Displaying quality receiving skills like his predecessor, Cosbie quickly became one of the league’s best receiving tight ends. Similar to Dupree, Cosbie had an outstanding three-year stretch from 1983 to 1985 where he caught 170 passes for 2,170 yards and 16 touchdowns. He led the league in receiving yards for a tight end in that span and was named to the Pro Bowl each year.
Cosbie’s production took a dip in the late 80’s as the team started to lose more and more games, but he was still viewed as an integral part of their passing game. However, he tore his Achilles during the 1988 season and it ended his career. He finished his ten-year career with 300 receptions for 3,728 yards and 30 touchdowns. He and Dupree were some of the tight ends of their time who began the shift towards the position being used more in the passing game.
The in-roads that Dupree and Cosbie made for the position helped lead to Jay Novacek, another great Cowboys tight end. Under Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys adopted a more innovative offensive approach, using the Air Coryell system that features the tight end prominently in the passing game. They signed Novacek in free agency. He came from the Phoenix Cardinals, where he had been sparingly used as a catcher.
That changed drastically for Novacek, who caught more passes in his first two years in Dallas than he had during his whole five years for the Cardinals. Novacek’s soft hands and decent speed for the position helped him emerge as a consistent threat across the middle of the field, and his reliability helped Troy Aikman develop significantly from a rough rookie year. Novacek caught 339 passes for 3,576 yards and 22 touchdowns during his short, six-year career in Dallas.
Recurring problems in his lower back caused Novacek to retire earlier than expected, and if he had continued to play past the 1995 season he might have broken records set by Dupree and Cosbie. It doesn’t distract from the luster of Novacek’s Cowboys career though. As a two-time All-Pro selection and five-time Pro Bowl selection, Novacek was an instrumental part of an offense that won three Super Bowls in three years.
In many ways, Novacek paved the way for Witten, who came into the league seven years after Novacek retired. Witten is more in line with the tight ends of Cowboys past than the Jimmy Graham’s and Gronk’s of today’s NFL. With a reputation as an ever-reliable pass catcher, Witten also displayed underrated blocking skills that’s made him one of the best tight ends in NFL history.
He has the most receiving yards in franchise history and is third in touchdown receptions. Now that Witten is returning to the Cowboys for the 2019 season, he can claim the top spot for scores if he can catch just six touchdowns. Witten was already a future Hall of Famer, but he now has the opportunity to add to his legacy even further.
With that in mind, we ask what may be the easiest question ever:
Who is the best tight end in Cowboys franchise history?
This poll is closed
Billy Joe Dupree