What Jason Witten’s return means for Cowboys on and off the field

INDIANAPOLIS — When tight end Jason Witten walked away from football last May, his teammates gave him a long, standing ovation, recognizing a successful 15-year career that placed him among the greatest to play for the Dallas Cowboys.

It wasn’t just the catches, yards and touchdowns that made Witten great — it was the example he set in the locker room, at practice and during games.

Several of his teammates wrote an open letter to Witten via ESPN.com expressing their gratitude.

On Thursday, Witten ended his retirement, agreeing to a one-year deal with the Cowboys that, according to sources, pays him $3.5 million with a possibility of $5 million with roster bonuses and incentives.

As it was from 2003 through 2017, the excitement regarding Witten’s return isn’t just about his ability to convert clutch third-down catches, but also for what he means off the field.

“When you think of the Dallas Cowboys, you think of him,” Cowboys Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin said. “But more than that, it’s his preparation, his leadership in the locker room, how he pushes himself every day to a new level.”

Witten will turn 37 in May. For more than a decade, he played nearly all of the snaps. With his return, the expectation is he will take a reduced role in the offense, serving as a mentor to young tight ends such as Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin and maybe even a potential draft pick, although coach Jason Garrett did not want to discuss playing time on Thursday.

“Playing football still tugged at his heart. I think he felt there was still some meat on the bone, some things he still wanted to accomplish,” Garrett told reporters. “I just think he loves it and wants to be in this environment. There is no doubt in his mind he can still play, and there is no doubt in my mind he can still play. Excited to have him back.”

In 2017, Witten caught 63 passes for 560 yards and 5 touchdowns. He was added to the Pro Bowl as the first alternate, which meant he was viewed by his NFC peers as the third-best tight end in the conference.

Witten will not be asked to ride to the Cowboys’ rescue upon his return. As much as the Cowboys’ decision to go with a receiver-by-committee approach to replace Dez Bryant failed and necessitated the trade for Amari Cooper, the committee approach at tight end was solid.

Schultz, Jarwin, Geoff Swaim — who is set to be a free agent — and Rico Gathers combined for 66 catches for 710 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, roughly the same as Witten by himself.

In his first two years as a starter, quarterback Dak Prescott used Witten as a security blanket in tough situations. As Prescott starts his fourth pro season, he once again can look to Witten in those difficult scenarios. Plus, Prescott has completed 73.7 percent of his passes thrown to tight ends in his career, third highest in the NFL in the past three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“[Witten has] been productive anytime he has stepped on a football field,” Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee told ESPN. “There’s nothing he can’t do at that position, and that’s why he’s a Hall of Fame player.”

Garrett said his discussions with Witten about a return started a few weeks ago. Witten stepped up his workouts to test how his body felt. He wanted to make sure his desire to play matched the physical ability to play.

Witten missed just one game in his career, in his rookie season. He holds franchise records for games played (239), consecutive games (236) and consecutive starts (179). He also rarely missed practices, taking days off during training camp only late in his career at the demand of the coaching staff. He earned awards every year for his work in the offseason program given by the strength and conditioning coaches.

“He knows his body more than anyone else. He knows the demands of the game more than anybody to make an honest assessment of where he was physically,” Garrett said. “He was able to do that over the last few weeks. I think he felt good about it. We certainly feel great about having him come back to the team.”

Witten’s work ethic rubbed off on players throughout the locker room. If he was going to put in the work, they were going to put in the work. That’s why there was not a leadership void in his absence in 2018, because Prescott, Lee, Martin, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyrone Crawford and others carried on what he taught them.

His teammates are excited to have him back.

“He’s definitely still going to be 82,” Crawford said. “He’s probably a little refreshed and ready to roll after taking a year off. I’m sure he’s ready to show what he’s got.”

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