Wit­ten gar­ner­ing records, Hall talk

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

OXNARD, Calif. — Ja­son Wit­ten isn’t think­ing about life after foot­ball as he goes through an­other train­ing camp with the Dal­las Cow­boys, and one of his fel­low tight ends hasn’t stopped to pon­der a Dal­las locker room with­out the 35-yearold.

Ge­off Swaim smiles in the mid­dle of an an­swer when he re­al­izes what he is say­ing about the first time he had a chance to be around one of just four play­ers to reach 15 sea­sons with the fran­chise.

“I had been watch­ing Witt since … since I was in ju­nior high,” said the 23-yearold Swaim, paus­ing with that sheep­ish grin, as if he knew he might be in trou­ble for fin­ish­ing the thought. “Watch­ing a guy like that play for such a long time at a high level, it is a lit­tle over­whelm­ing when you first get in the room and you’re talk­ing foot­ball and you’re being coached up next to a guy that’s been do­ing it the right way.”

Wit­ten can con­sider him­self part of the younger crowd Satur­day, when he watches his 74-year-old boss — Cow­boys owner and Arkansas na­tive Jerry Jones — get in­ducted into the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame. After all, Wit­ten will have a pretty strong case for that honor five years after he re­tires.

“I try not to let that creep in,” Wit­ten said. “But I think I’d be ly­ing to say that’s not one of the things that you hope as a player. That’s the high­est honor, in­di­vid­u­ally. Ob­vi­ously we don’t play it for that. But in­di­vid­u­ally, that’s what you hope you can be a part of.”

Wit­ten will open the sea­son need­ing two games to be­come the fran­chise leader with 225, top­ping pass rusher Ed “Too Tall” Jones from the 1970s and ’80s.

He’s al­ready the club leader in con­sec­u­tive games, starts, con­sec­u­tive starts and catches — sur­pass­ing the likes of Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jor­dan and Michael Irvin. Lilly and Irvin are Hall of Famers.

With 11,888 yards re­ceiv­ing, Wit­ten needs just 17 to top Irvin’s fran­chise record and is one of just two tight ends with at least 1,000 catches and 10,000 yards re­ceiv­ing (he has 1,089 catches). Tony Gon­za­lez, el­i­gi­ble for en­shrine­ment in 2019, is the other.

“I don’t think there is any doubt in my mind that he’s a Hall of Fame tight end,” Coach Ja­son Gar­rett said. “And he’s one of the best tight ends to ever play this game, and cer­tainly the best of his gen­er­a­tion in my view, and such a com­plete player.”

Wit­ten didn’t have any rea­son to think his ca­reer track would be dif­fer­ent from quar­ter­back Tony Romo after they joined the Cow­boys to­gether in 2003. They be­came best friends and a pro­lific pass-catch com­bi­na­tion (649, al­most twice that of the next re­ceiver on Romo’s list).

But Romo in­jured his back in the pre­sea­son last year, and Dak Prescott took his job for good on his way to NFC Of­fen­sive Rookie of the Year hon­ors while lead­ing Dal­las to the top seed in the NFC at 13-3.

Wit­ten em­braced the change be­fore his sixth loss in eight play­off games — to Green Bay at home in the di­vi­sional round, a de­feat that caused him to pause briefly early in the off­sea­son to make sure he wanted to keep play­ing.

He didn’t pause long, and he chuck­les at the idea of “last man stand­ing.” Romo and of­fen­sive line­man Doug Free re­tired in the off­sea­son, as did DeMar­cus Ware in Den­ver three years after the Cow­boys cut their fran­chise sacks leader in a salary cap move.

“I think this year I was prob­a­bly forced to re­flect for the first time, three good friends in DeMar­cus and Doug and of course Tony re­tir­ing,” said Wit­ten, who in March signed a four-year ex­ten­sion that goes through 2021 but in re­al­ity is more of a year-to-year con­tract. “And as I was re­flect­ing, I was over­whelmed with joy know­ing that this game pro­vided re­la­tion­ships like that. In say­ing that, I’m also ex­cited about the new bonds I’ve been able to form and grow with that.”

Swaim, who has a good chance to be Wit­ten’s backup this year and pos­si­bly even his re­place­ment when that time comes, is on that list.

“I’m def­i­nitely in the room with a Hall of Famer,” said Swaim, a sev­enth-round pick two years ago. “I don’t know of many peo­ple that would ar­gue that. It’s pretty easy that he’s a first-bal­lot Hall of Famer. That’s not re­ally a ques­tion.”

AP/GUS RUELAS

Dal­las Cow­boys tight end Ja­son Wit­ten (left) is one of only two tight ends with at least 1,000 ca­reer catches and 10,000 re­ceiv­ing yards. “I don’t think there is any doubt in my mind that he’s a Hall of Fame tight end,” Cow­boys Coach Ja­son Gar­rett said. “And he’s one of the best tight ends to play this game, and cer­tainly the best of his gen­er­a­tion in my view, and such a com­plete player.”

Jones

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