OXNARD, Calif. — Jason Witten knew he wanted to play football again after Week 11 of the 2018 season.
He’d just announced the highest scoring game in “Monday Night Football” history, but something was missing. As he watched the Kansas City Chiefs-Los Angeles Rams shootout unfold, he wished he was on the field, impacting the game and not breaking it down.
The thought stewed in his head until after the Pro Bowl, when Witten pulled out an old practice script from his desk. Earlier in his career, a coach showed him Steve Largent’s Hall of Fame speech, in which the wide receiver mentioned posting a practice script up on the goal post during training.
Witten mimicked the habit throughout his playing career. For 10 days this past winter, he returned to a practice field in Dallas with a longtime trainer and hung up the old script. He dropped into a stance and tested his explosion, adding plays as the days went on. If his legs held up for those consecutive sessions, he’d know he still had it.
“You have the emotion of wanting to play and feeling like there's still a little meat on that bone,” said Witten on Thursday, reflecting on his decision to return. “But can you physically still do it?”
Witten answered that question for himself in February and ended his one-year retirement by signing with the Cowboys. The 37-year-old said he didn’t walk away after the 2017 season because he felt slower or his game diminished. He was intrigued by the opportunity to join the “MNF” broadcast.
Witten, who has caught the fourth-most passes in NFL history, watched last season as four Dallas tight ends combined for 68 receptions. Witten himself has caught less than 68 passes just five times in 15 seasons. Still, he said he wasn’t the missing link for the Cowboys, who lost in the divisional round, and hopes to be another piece.
“There's a fire inside,” Witten told Yahoo Sports. “I didn't overthink it to that standpoint. I just felt like there was something that I could still offer. And, you know, I want to exhaust all efforts to kind of see if I can be a part of something special.”
Witten, sporting a new bald look, “felt great.” At 6-foot-6 and 263 pounds, he has never been known for breakaway speed or earth-shattering athleticism. He’s always dominated the mental aspect of the game and been detailed-oriented rather than just physically dominant. He’s the sort of player who checks his stance in the cafeteria, joked Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.
In the year spent broadcasting, Witten built his knowledge through discussions with players from around the league. It provided a new perspective on how different teams and players function. He enjoyed chatting with Khalil Mack early in the year and understanding how he seamlessly transitioned to a new franchise. Multiple Seahawks games provided insight on a franchise he has admired, particularly because of their rise with Russell Wilson.
“That's what I love about this team, is you have a star young quarterback on the rise,” Witten said, comparing the Cowboys to the Seahawks, “but it takes everybody and building that together.”
Garrett said after Thursday’s morning walk-through that you can often find Witten in the remote parts of the field working on his stances. In the afternoon session Witten worked alone with tight end coach Doug Nussmeier for an entire period, drilling run-blocking steps and discussing techniques. It's one of the things Witten is emphasizing to “knock the rust off,” Nussmeier said.
Nussmeier was new to the Cowboys last season along with three of the four tight ends. Like he did running in-depth film study sessions with the “MNF” staff, Witten has elevated the conversations in the positional meetings from base-level discussions of plays to intricate dialogue on releases off the line, among other intricacies.
“It's a great example for these young guys as they come out to practice and they watch him run around a certain way,” Nussmeier said. “And they can ask him the why ... when you can actually see it, and see somebody do it, and have success, it validates it.”
As Witten said, he didn’t return to be the “moral support guy.” He’s slotted back in as a starting tight end, though will likely see fewer snaps than years past, considering he rarely left the field in his first 15 seasons.
He made a few catches throughout the team portion of the practice, but one pair of fans swore he was getting open more than he was getting thrown to.
In a 7-on-7 scenario, Witten leaned into his break around 10 yards before curling out and leaving his defender for a catch past the first-down marker. He received his loudest cheers of the day, but the play wasn’t flashy, just precise route running to move the sticks. A quintessential Jason Witten catch.
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