It’s not often a franchise has to make the decision on whether to bring back one of their all-time great players. More often than not, those players get to play their entire career with one franchise, retiring on their own terms or being forced to walk away due to injury. Sometimes, however, an all-time great and future hall of famer is forced to find a new team in the twilight of their career if they want to continue playing. The Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning faced that decision and now it looks like Jason Witten and the Dallas Cowboys will face a similar decision.
Yesterday, Jason Witten has made it known that he would like to continue playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020. With Witten set to hit free agency for the first time in his career, Head Coach Mike McCarthy and the Dallas Cowboys have a big decision to make.
Should they re-sign Jason Witten?
Jason Witten hopes to continue playing in Dallas. “But I realize I’m a free agent too in March. Any time a new staff comes together, I’ve played a long time, so I realize that may mean somewhere else too.” Witten has talked with Mike McCarthy and stayed in contact w/ Jerry Jones.
Witten’s return to the Dallas Cowboys last offseason was met with much fanfare as the Cowboys needed better tight end play from what they got during the 2018 season. That was Witten’s loan season in the Monday Night Football booth.
Upon his return, the talk from Witten and the coaching staff was Witten would play around 25 snaps per game; a little less than half of the potential offensive snaps a game. The idea was Witten would provide veteran leadership to the Dallas Cowboys locker room while becoming a role player making way for the Cowboys young tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz.
The opposite came to be as Jason Witten resumed his role as the starter. Though he played a smaller percentage of snaps than he had throughout much of his career, Witten’s presence still forced his way onto the field when perhaps Blake Jarwin might have been a better option. From 2012 to 2017, Jason Witten had never played fewer than 96% of the team’s offensive snaps.
The benefit to bringing Jason Witten back is again, they’ll have a veteran presence with a lot of experience to help lead the team, hopefully to the playoffs. Witten, even at 37 years old produced at a similar rate to 2017 and that was after a year off from football. At 75.9%, Witten’s catch percentage was the best of his career. Among tight ends with at least 65 targets in 2019, Witten had the fifth-highest catch percentage in the NFL. All while finishing second in the NFL among tight ends in drops with six.
There are few negatives to the idea of bringing Jason Witten back as a football player. However, there comes a time when a team has to look to the future and not to the past with players. Jason Witten has been a consummate professional for the Dallas Cowboys and one of the league’s few iron men. It’s really difficult for NFL players to make it through a season playing all 16 games and Jason Witten’s done that 15 seasons since his rookie year. His blocking ability hasn’t been as good in recent years, which may force the Cowboys to look elsewhere if they want good to great blocking from the tight end position.
He’s been limited in recent years in his ability to get down the field and threaten the defense vertically. Witten also hasn’t offered a whole lot after the catch. Both of those areas are where Blake Jarwin excelled in 2019 on fewer snaps.
The difficulty comes in bringing Witten back and making him a role player. We saw that in 2019. When the coaching staff became uncertain about Blake Jarwin’s blocking ability or uneasy about the game situation, they relied on old reliable to be a rock-solid presence for the team, whether or not he was the best option given the game situation.
The future hall of fame tight end would make an excellent insurance policy for the team if they decided to role with Blake Jarwin or Dalton Schultz as their starting tight end. Even if they decided to draft a player, the Cowboys would feel more confident going young, if they knew they could bring in Witten when they needed to. If they could talk him into playing 50% or fewer snaps moving forward while attempting to develop Blake Jarwin or a rookie with similar athletic ability, it could be a good move for the Cowboys.
From the new coaching staff’s perspective, Jason Witten could be an asset or a hindrance to what they were trying to do in cultivating their locker room. After bringing in Rob Davis as a de facto locker room coach, Mike McCarthy has made it clear of the importance of having a strong and healthy locker room. Jason Witten the professional and excellent teammate that he is could help that transition occur. Given, however, his length of service to the organization and to Jason Garrett, the new coaching regime could see him as the final vestige of an underwhelming era of Dallas Cowboys football. Jason Witten is the longest-tenured member of the Dallas Cowboys. Fair or not, as great as his career has been, team success is the only thing lacking.
In 2019, Jason Witten proved that he still has a lot to offer an NFL team and perhaps even the Dallas Cowboys. However, the Dallas Cowboys have an opportunity to get more athletic at the position by giving Blake Jarwin a bigger role or in the NFL draft and they have to take it. The only way it makes sense for Jason Witten to return to the Cowboys is in a reduced role. Maybe with a new coaching regime who isn’t tied to Witten, maybe they won’t feel the pressure to get him on the field so much and it’ll work. If they can talk him into being the second tight end on the depth chart, then count me in. Otherwise, it’s time for the Cowboys to go in a different direction at the position.