It all made perfect sense that tight end Jason Witten was on the receiving end of the game-turning play in the Dallas Cowboys’ 24-20 NFC wild-card victory against the Detroit Lions.
It put them in Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers and within two wins of reaching the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995.
Along with Tony Romo, the 12-year veteran is the longest-tenured player on the team.
He has had a front-row seat to the tortured existence of the Cowboys’ yearly frustrations and playoff failures since he was drafted in the third round out of Tennessee in 2003.
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Witten has been the one who has spoken for the team on the first day of training camp in each of the past three seasons, promising that this year would be different.
Fittingly, this year, because of Witten, is finally different.
In the moment of truth against the Lions, coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo put the ball and the game in Witten’s hands.
Trailing 20-17 with 6 minutes left, the Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Lions’ 42-yard line.
Romo hit Witten for a 21-yard gain and a first down. A few plays later, Romo threw an 8-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Terrance Williams, clinching their first playoff win since 2009 and only their second in six trips to the playoffs since Witten joined the team in 2003.
“I’ve always had high expectations for myself when I came in the league,” Witten said. “The older you get, it’s for moments like this. You put all that work in and hopefully you come out the other side and compete for a championship. Hell or high water, I was going to find a way to get open on that option pass.”
The Cowboys had no doubt he would.
Garrett called Witten the most reliable football player he’s ever been around.
That much was evident on the fourth-down play. It was an option route on which Witten initially made a move to the outside. He saw the coverage and went inside to make the crucial catch. Romo read him all the way — a testament to their years together as his most trusted and reliable receiver.
“The kid [Lions safety James Ihedigbo] actually undercut the route and took it away,” Romo said. “I had to wait. Jason ended up making the route come back inside. The route is not always run that way, and it’s a credit to him because he wasn’t going to get open running it the other way. He is obviously been doing that for years and to go for him in that situation is a no-brainer.”
For much of the last decade, going to Witten in the clutch and any other time has been a no-brainer for the Cowboys.
Witten, a nine-time Pro Bowler, holds the franchise record for career receptions with 943. He is second all time in NFL history among tight ends and is tied for 13th in NFL history in receptions.
But Witten’s biggest attribute during his career with the Cowboys has been his leadership. That was put on full display this season when he took a lesser role with the team’s plan to feature the running game and receiver Dez Bryant.
Witten finished with 64 catches for 703 yards and five touchdowns — his lowest numbers since catching 64 passes for 754 yards in 2006. He showed his commitment to winning by becoming a huge factor as a blocker in the running game.
None of that has been lost on his teammates and coaches.
“He’s been a great leader since the minute I met him,” Garrett said. “He’s a remarkably good player, and he’s as good a teammate, as good a leader as I’ve ever been around. The approach he takes every day, the example he sets for his teammates, how he plays, his mental toughness, his physical toughness, all those things he’s had such a positive impact on everybody around him. He’s one of those guys you point to as a coach and say do what he does. He’s a special, special player.”
Bryant has replaced Witten as the focal point of the passing game. Even he acknowledges he couldn’t have done it without Witten’s guidance and leadership, on and off the field.
“Y’all don’t even understand how much I love Witt as a person,” Bryant said. “I’ve learned so much from this man. I said it from Day One, I’ll give my all for him.”
The ironic and fitting thing is that Witten became a bigger part of the offense during the final month of the season when the Cowboys were facing must-win games to make the playoffs. And he led the team with five catches for 63 yards against the Lions.
“Yeah, Jason has been incredible his whole career,” said Romo, who remarked in October that Witten might be the greatest Cowboy ever, a title first reserved for Mr. Cowboy, Bob Lilly.
“I don’t think he’s had any slippage in his play. If anything, I think he’s continued to get better and better as he’s gotten older. We just have more pieces now. We run the ball more. So a lot of things play into the numbers, but he’s still an unbelievable football player who is playing at a high level.”
That he is again being counted on in the passing game is not a huge surprise to Witten. He expected things to come back his way once opponents started trying to take away Bryant.
While he admits it was special to be trusted to make the fourth-down play against the Lions, he wants it clear that he is not satisfied and this team is not satisfied. His focus and sacrifice are for something greater, something super.
“It’s special,” Witten said. “You commit so much to the greater good to where we are trying to go and to have come full circle and the game to be in that situation, that’s special. That’s what you dream about, making those plays. That feels good. This is what we have been working so hard for.
“But there is no sense of accomplishment right now. You are among the best, but you are not the best. The quest is to be champions.”
Clarence E. Hill Jr.