On doorstep of Cowboys history, Jason Witten stands alone in this Dallas era

ATLANTA -- Jason Witten was just hoping to survive his first training camp and make the team when he joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2003 as a third-round pick out of Tennessee.

Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would one day catch more passes than any other Cowboys player ever.

As Witten heads into tonight's game against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons (7-0), he is standing on the doorstep of history.

With 747 career receptions, he is four catches away from surpassing Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin as the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. Irvin had 750 receptions for 11,904 yards from 1988-99.

Witten, who fittingly caught his first pass against the Falcons as a rookie, will be focused primarily on helping the Cowboys (3-4) win the game and save their season. But he can't help but be awed by the moment.

He said if somebody would have told him then after catching that pass against the Falcons that he would one day replace Irvin as the most prolific pass catcher in team history, he would have "thought they were crazy."

"Obviously, you know what's going on, and you really don't like talking about it until it happens because you're so focused on winning," Witten said. "Just to be mentioned with Michael Irvin is special, and hopefully we'll have a good discussion after a big win about it, once it happens. But really, until then, my focus is trying to help this team win and where we're at in the season."

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is not surprised Witten is closing in on Irvin's mark. A former teammate of Irvin's on the Cowboys' Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, Garrett said the two are quite similar in makeup, work ethic, leadership and passion for the game, which is the foundation for greatness. Witten is just less flashy, flamboyant and cocky.

"When you look at those two guys, their exterior might be different but they're all about the same thing," Garrett said. "Each of those guys is as good a teammate as I've been around, as passionate about this game as I've been around, works as hard at this game as anybody I've ever been around. They're guys you can point to and say, 'Do things like that guy does it. Watch 82. Watch 88.' The common denominator between great players, great coaches, great teams is a passion and intensity for the game, and each of those guys has it."

Unlike Irvin, who came to the Cowboys with great expectations as a first-round pick out of Miami, the Cowboys hoped to get a solid contributor with tremendous potential when they took Witten in 2003. He came to college as a defensive end before being moved to offense as a freshman and then left school after his junior year still relatively raw and new to the tight end position.

Witten has gone on to not only become one of the team's greatest draft picks but one of the greatest players in team history. If there was ever a "Mr. Cowboy" of the past decade, he would be it, hands down.

The only blemish on his résumé is the lack of playoff success, most notably a Super Bowl title.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones said that's no fault of Witten and promised if he had 52 other players on the roster like him they would have won a title or two by now.

"He is obviously one of the great players to ever play for the Cowboys," Jones said. "If anything, you want to get a championship for a guy like that. What a career! He does everything right. Not only does he lead vocally, but he leads by example. You just need to take a look at Jason Witten and see how he goes about the business of football, and that's what you want."

Making today's likely achievement even more special is the presence of Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez on the opposing team. Gonzalez might be the best tight end in NFL history. He is No. 1 all-time in catches and yards with 1,195 catches and 13,797 yards. Witten is third in both categories behind Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe.

"It's obviously unique because he's the best to ever do it, and that will make it special to play against him," Witten said. "When I came in the league, that was the guy, still is today, that you kind of modeled your game off of, and really looked at and said 'hey, this is the guy, how he does it and how he approaches it.' More than anything, the tough catches that he makes. You watch them, a lot of them are nondescript plays, but it's pretty amazing. I obviously have got a lot of respect for him, being able to play with him in a lot of Pro Bowls and pick his brain."

The 36-year-old Gonzalez, a 16-year veteran who has already announced plans to retire at the end of the season, is not surprised at Witten becoming the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver -- not after watching him catch a team-record 18 passes against the New York Giants last Sunday. And not after getting to know him over the years during trips to the Pro Bowl and appearances at the Super Bowl over the years.

"He's a pass-catching machine," Gonzalez said. "He's been able to stay healthy. Obviously, he's the blanket for [Cowboys quarterback] Tony Romo. He's going to him on checkdowns and quick routes. The way he prepares, the work he puts into it, it can't be a surprise."

Gonzalez was certainly on point with Witten being Romo's security blanket, and that's on and off the field. Witten is one of Romo's closest friends as well as his favorite target.

"I think Jason has been amazing for a long, long time. In some ways, he's gotten better. That's a great accomplishment in and of itself," Romo said. "He's as good as it gets. There is not another tight end out there who has played the game better than he has."

While Gonzalez's presence on the field tonight makes Romo's final point debatable, there is no question about Witten's place in Cowboys history. The team's hallowed Ring of Honor is certainly in his future, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, for which Garrett called him a lock.

But just like passing Irvin as the Cowboys' leading receiver, those are things Witten will think about and appreciate when he retires.

"[The time to appreciate the record] will probably be at the end of your career when you have the time," Witten said. "There's no question when you're on that journey, you want to be the best. The ultimate goal is to win the championship. There have been a lot of records set here after those guys won Super Bowls, too. It's easy to celebrate that because they have three of them in the back of their hip pockets. We don't have that. For me, that's the ultimate quest that you're on."

Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760

Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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