IRVING -- Tight end Jason Witten had a Willis Reed impact on the Dallas Cowboys season-opening victory against the New York Giants.
Witten played in the game less than a month after suffering a lacerated spleen and just one day after getting the OK from team doctors.
Though Witten was a shell of his seven-time Pro Bowl self, catching only two passes and committing two penalties, it's a game coach Jason Garrett said he will remember most about the tight end's possible Hall of Fame career because of the courage he displayed and the inspiration he provided to his teammates.
But Witten, who has led the Cowboys in receiving in each of the past five years and is 53 catches from passing Michael Irvin as the team's all-time leading receiver, wants no part of the ceremonial accolades. He said he played in the game because that's what any competitor would do and he felt he could help the team win -- no different than any of his other teammates.
"I think there's a mindset around this team all training camp, all off-season, not just with me but everybody of taking advantage of the opportunity and doing whatever it takes, don't let excuses get in the way of what you want to accomplish," Witten said. "It's not easy. Sometimes you're going to be in adverse situations, obviously that was one for me, but I really wanted to play in the game and help out there."
Considering how the Cowboys' season ended last year and the opponent on the opposite sideline, Witten said there was no way he was not going to play. He had worked all off-season to make amends for last year. And at age 30, he knows the opportunities are fading fast, so he cherishes every chance he gets on the field.
"Our team knew that was a big game," Witten said. "Now that's over. I'm excited about this opportunity coming back, get some good practice days and move on to the next."
The next is Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Although he still has some discomfort from the injury, he expects to have his usual impact on the game -- based on production and not inspiration.
"I feel good," Witten said. "It's there. There's no question in that, but I feel like the more and more now with practice and getting out there, I'll get back to my normal self here this week."
Witten will wear protective padding under his shoulder pads.
"I guess you can never say never as far as always [being] 100 percent," Witten said, "but I think it's one of those deals where you don't know when those situations are going to come up. I've got padding there.
"I don't see any setbacks that will get in the way here and [I can] go back to being the normal self, get to practice and get the stuff going for a big game this week."
Let Garrett tell it: Witten played at a high level against the Giants just by getting on the field. The defense had to pay attention to him, opening up things for others in the passing game.
But even Garrett admits that Witten probably will get more opportunities in the passing game against Seattle.
"From an inspirational standpoint, for him to be able to play in that ballgame, I think that gave everybody a lift. I thought he blocked well. He ran routes well. They gave him a lot of attention, which freed up some other guys," Garrett said. "We anticipate Wit being Wit. We're going to give him some chances like we always try to do."
That's certainly what Seattle coach Pete Carroll is expecting. After watching film of the Cowboys' win against the Giants, he came away impressed with receivers Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree, who combined for 16 catches for 272 yards and three touchdowns. But he knows the Cowboys will get back to doing what they do best against the Seahawks and feed the ball to Witten.
"Really we didn't see as much as I'm sure we'll get to see Jason Witten," Carroll said of the Giants game. "He's an extraordinary factor in their offense."
The biggest factor in Witten's possible larger impact against the Seahawks is that he has been able to practice fully this week for the first time since sustaining the injury. His conditioning is better and he is regaining his timing with quarterback Tony Romo -- which were both key factors in his limited role against the Giants.
"I take a lot of pride in the repetition and getting that feeling down," Witten said. "I always felt like I could get back and run. That's never been a concern for me. Just the practice, the timing both in the run and pass game, that's something that's important for me to get the last two, three days."
Come Sunday, he plans to be more than an inspiration again. He plans to produce like the Witten of old.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.