Perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten is Mr. Cowboy, just as Bob Lilly and Roger Staubach were before him.
He epitomizes everything that is right and good about the historic franchise.
Tony Romo might be the poster boy of this era of 8-8 Dallas Cowboys, because the quarterback is a lightning rod for criticism.
But Witten has been the heart and soul of this franchise for the better part of a decade.
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He is one of the greats of the game, who is passionate and gives it all on and off the field in word and deed.
He plays on without his helmet, plays through a lacerated spleen and leads with his chin.
The Cowboys have long been criticized for a lack of leadership, because they haven’t won, not because they don’t have leaders.
Witten is that and has been that.
No one cares because people rarely recognize or respect leadership on bad to mediocre teams. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, Witten gets it and understands as much.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry about it or that it doesn’t cause him sleepless nights, because it does.
He has one playoff win to go along with countless season-ending disappointments on his ledger, just as Romo does.
But he’s asking for no charity or sympathy.
He just keeps doing the only thing he knows how to do: Come back to work, put in the sweat equity and hope that this is the year the dam breaks for him and the Cowboys.
“There’s no question there’s a lot of sleepless nights there, but really, nobody cares,” Witten said. “Ultimately, you find ways to get to those games, you’ve got to find ways to play better. We got outplayed. Nobody is going to give you anything. You’ve got to earn it. If you want to have that breakthrough, I think it takes a commitment.
“Hopefully those experiences, we’ll learn from it and be better because of it. I think we’ve got the right guys who will go do it, but it’s a long ways away. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The shame is that it is a familiar refrain for Witten, one he’s given at the start of training camp for the past few years, season after season of disappointment. The passion behind the words remain the same. He truly believes this year will be the year, just as he did the past three years.
“It’s been a tough three years in a row, so you want to have that breakthrough that you talk about,” Witten said. “You’ve got to go earn it. You can’t just think we are going to be better than we were or we will be better because of those experiences. It’s a new year, and honestly no one cares.
“The only thing I know is the only way you get there in any sport or any athlete is you keep working and play better in those opportunities. When those moments arrive and you get that opportunity you have to maximize on it.
“You go back and look at the handful of plays that decide the outcome of these games and we didn’t make the plays. I think we’ve done a good job of looking at that and being accountable for that. I believe we will be better because of that.”
These are not hollow words for Witten, who could rest on his laurels as the best tight end in team history, a shoo-in for the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor and a likely future Hall of Famer. He is still leading with his chin 12 years into the league.
As it was, Witten led the Cowboys on a player-led conditioning drill before camp this year, even though coach Jason Garrett took it out of the team’s official camp regimen to avoid injuries. He took exception to anyone suggesting that they were undermining the wishes of Garrett.
“Five years ago people complained that we didn’t have any leaders, and now we show leadership and we get this,” an angry Witten fired off at a reporter after the opening day of practice.
Point made. Point taken.
Garrett didn’t feel undermined and certainly has nothing but praise for Witten’s leadership, which he said is as strong as any during his time as a player on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams of the 1990s.
“I’m not so sure I have ever been around a guy who is a better leader for his team than Witten is,” Garrett said. “First and foremost with him, it’s example. He does everything the right way, every single day.
“But he has a tremendous amount of physical and mental toughness that influences people. He is not afraid to speak up to make sure something is done the right way. And he is completely invested in what we are doing. He cares about what we are doing. The players see that and are positively impacted by that.”
His impact in the Cowboys’ locker room is one of the main reasons running back DeMarco Murray said earlier this summer that he was motivated to be the best he can be to help the Cowboys break through, because guys like Witten deserved it for all they have been through.
Witten doesn’t want pity if his career ends without playoff success. Until then, he will continue trying, continue believing that a breakthrough will come.
“That’s why every one of us is involved in this: to get ourselves in position where we can get the playoffs and have success in the playoffs and hopefully get the Super Bowl,” Garrett said. “No one cares more about that than Witten does. It’s significantly more important to him than any individual statistic he can continue to accumulate.”