It’s Feb. 2, 2020. Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Dallas Cowboys have just won Super Bowl XLIV, ending the longest championship drought in franchise history. Standing on the stage, Witten grabs the fingerprint-smudged Vince Lombardi trophy, gives it a quick, loving glance and thrusts it into the night air.
“Are you kidding me? You come back after taking a year off, and this team goes and does this?” Witten said in mid-June, sitting in the living room of his Westlake, Texas, home. “What a helluva night that would be.”
The dream is fleeting, not because it is impossible but because Witten knows dreams have to be pushed aside for the work that starts later this week in Oxnard, California.
This will be Witten’s 16th training camp with the Cowboys, and in some ways, it might be like his first in 2003 at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
Back then, he was 21 years old and upset that he was picked in the third round of the draft. He can still rattle off the four tight ends selected before him: Dallas Clark, IndiaNapolis, No. 24 overall; Bennie Joppru, Houston, No. 41; L.J. Smith, Philadelphia, No. 61; Teyo Johnson, Oakland, No. 63.
Witten was picked No. 69 overall and was so angry that when his brother, Ryan, grabbed a Cowboys flag out of his bedroom, he barely cracked a smile. At the celebratory dinner at Outback Steakhouse, his buddy Michael made a list of successful players selected lower. That did not change Witten’s demeanor either.
He used those slights to become one of the best tight ends in NFL history. He used the fact that the Cowboys selected three tight ends in the second round — Anthony Fasano, 2006, Martellus Bennett, 2008, and Gavin Escobar, 2012 — as motivation to prove he could still play.
Now 37, Witten has to prove that he still has it after a year as ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst.
“When you take this challenge to go back, really the risk is on me, you know?” Witten said. “If I’m not any good, you see it all the time — guys come back and sign up, and by the end of training camp, they retire before they’re cut. We know it’s a young man’s game. We know you’ve got to be able to go out there and do it. I feel like I’ve always held myself to a really high standard of what it takes to play well day in and day out, and I was confident that I can go do that.
“The challenge, too, is opportunities, and how much are you playing, and what’s the role and all that kind of stuff that goes into it. There was [a] lot of uncertainties, and there still is. You’ve just got to trust that it will work itself out over time.”
In early May, after the Cowboys’ second on-field teaching session, a text message of a quick video was sent to a group of teammates. In it, Witten is lined up tight to the right side of the formation. Dak Prescott is in the shotgun. At the snap, Prescott fakes a handoff to Ezekiel Elliott as left guard Connor Williams pulls to sell the run even more as Witten sprints down the field.
Prescott’s throw is a little high, but Witten makes a one-handed catch. Every offensive lineman makes the sprint 25 yards down the field. Prescott comes in late, wind-milling his right arm in celebration.
“To see him in the first thing being out there with the guys moving as well as he’s moving, making incredible catches, that’s something he’s done his entire career,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “His personality is infectious, but just being on the field with the guys, making plays like that, we love seeing it. Everybody got so excited. You saw the whole line run down. Dak was crazy. I went up and watched it in the film room afterward and got excited watching it.”
It was a “he’s back” moment, even if there wasn’t a defense on the other side of the line of scrimmage, even if there were no pads or helmets, and even if Ford Center was empty.
“I think when you come back, it’s natural. If I was the head coach, I’d be doing the same thing. You’re looking to see these moments,” Witten said. “It’s like watching a guy in batting practice. There’s nothing but this moment where it doesn’t have to be a home run, but it’s, ‘I like that swing.’ For me, I felt early on in the teaching sessions everybody was watching. ‘Hey, what have we got ourselves here? Is this old Witt?’ That’s motivating.”
Lieberman was 39 and already a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame when the WNBA debuted in 1997. In 2008, when she was 50, she played in one WNBA game. In between, she played in basketball games with other athletes around Dallas and developed a close relationship with Deion Sanders.
Before Sanders opted to return to the NFL after a three-year retirement when he was 37, the Hall of Fame cornerback sought Lieberman’s advice with a 1 a.m. phone call. They talked about the dedication and work it would take.
“It’s different when you’re a Dallas Cowboy or a New York Yankee or somebody like that,” Lieberman said. “You just have to stay in your lane and do your job. Your body is going to be your measuring stick of your success. We’re a very visual society. If I came into the league fat, they’re going to know I didn’t put the work in. If you come in overweight, they’re going to say he didn’t do his work.”
Then Lieberman turned her answer into a statement to Witten.
“But this is a pro’s pro. This man is a Hall of Famer,” she said. “I haven’t had the chance to tell you, but I am so proud of you. You should do this as long as you can. It’s a blessing.”
When Witten decided to retire, he knew he would miss the game. What he did not know was just how much he would miss it. As he watched the Cowboys play the 2018 season opener against the Carolina Panthers, he felt the pangs even as he was about to launch his broadcast career across the country in Oakland.
His work in the booth did not draw rave reviews, and he admitted to growing pains, but he thought he, Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland and Lisa Salters got better as the season went on. The backlash, especially on social media, was difficult but did not drive his decision to return to the field.
After he called the wild-card round game between the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, the urge to play grew stronger. That led to discussions with the Cowboys and phone calls to ESPN’s upper management about the decision to return.
“They were unbelievable with the support they gave me. Zero regrets,” Witten said. “I got better during that year. I’m excited now. We all go through these things in life. It’s not always easy. There’s complications, and I certainly have gone through my stuff in life. The ability to come back and write these final chapters is something I couldn’t resist.”
Jerry Jones outlines the importance of having Jason Witten on the Cowboys this year and what his future will be when he is done playing.
‘What does he have left?’
No one knows for sure what he has left, but in 2017, Witten was added to the Pro Bowl as a first alternate after catching 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns. In the spring, teammates and coaches repeatedly mentioned how good he looked.
In his prime, Witten’s game was not built on Rob Gronkowski-like athleticism. He was not a fastball pitcher who needed to learn how to work the corners of the strike zone as he got older.
Former NFL safety and ESPN writer Matt Bowen considers Witten’s effect on critical game situations. “Think of third-and-2 or third-and-7 situations. That’s where Witten can create high-percentage throwing opportunities for Dak Prescott. Work the middle of the field, run his classic Y-option route and move the sticks. That allows Prescott to find a specific matchup while extending drives.”
From 2006 to ’15, Witten and Tony Romo were one of the NFL’s best duos. They grew from rookies to Pro Bowlers. Witten caught 649 passes from Romo for 7,287 yards and 37 touchdowns.
“I think Jason’s going to come back and be just like he was before he left,” Romo said. “It’s hard when you’re away from the game, but certain guys have the ability, just the understanding of leverage, understanding how, almost using the other players’ strengths against them. When you’re at his position or the quarterback position, your mind matters so much. As long as his brain works the same way, you’re going to see the same Jason Witten because he’s very instinctive. He has the ability to use his hands, use his feet in very small spaces. He can play a long time. I don’t think [the year off] will affect him the way it would others. His brain works very quickly on the football field.”
Witten holds the Cowboys’ records for receptions, receiving yards, games played, consecutive games played and starts. If he plays in the Sept. 8 season opener against the New York Giants, no player will have played more seasons with the Cowboys than Witten. He is tied with Bob Lilly, the original Mr. Cowboy, for the most Pro Bowl appearances in team history, with 11.
“He’s been a very good and very dependable person all these years,” Lilly said. “This is 16 years. That’s pretty rare. Tight ends, they get hit like everybody else and get tangled up with players. He’s done an extraordinary job. Everybody I talk to, they’re really enamored with his hard work, his leadership, how he helps players out. He definitely stands for Mr. Cowboy.”
No one knows if Witten’s comeback is for one season or more. He is taking things day by day, not even year by year. Maybe he will get into coaching whenever he walks away for good. Maybe he will go back to broadcasting.
Those questions are for other days. Now, it’s about the dream and the work.
As he drove to The Star for the first day of captains’ workouts in March, Witten’s stomach turned the same way it did from 2003 through 2017.
“You feel like you’ve got to prove it every day,” Witten said. “That’s a helluva challenge to know that. Hell, I’d be doing the same thing others are doing — questioning it. I’m not mad about that. I know it’s going to be like that when I get to training camp. It’s going to be the same thing: ‘All right, get the pads on, can he do these things?’ There’s a lot of questions there. I think, for me, what wakes me up every day is saying, ‘OK, I can go do this, and I can play at this level still.’ You hear a lot of guys when they get older say that they still feel good. Well, I do.
“You know, I think we’re going to surprise some people in how we play.”