Cowboys' Witten closing in on NFL record for tight ends

IRVING -- Jason Witten is close to a record he will never forget.

The most catches in a season by a tight end in NFL history.

He needs only six to get there, and because he is averaging 6.9 catches per game this year, it's well within reach.

But forget that.

The veteran Dallas Cowboys tight end already has something he will treasure more about this season -- playing against the New York Giants just 23 days after suffering a lacerated spleen that at the time seemed to threatened not only his season, but his career.

"It goes beyond catches," he said. "That was a special game for me. That's what you stand for. That's what you want to be remembered as -- beyond any catches -- is playing in those situations."

Witten's inspirational performance in the season-opening victory set a tone that still resonates in the Cowboys' season. Witten is right to be proud of it. But a 100-catch season is nothing to sneeze at.

It's been done by a tight end only twice. Tony Gonzalez caught 102 passes in 2004 for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Dallas Clark caught 100 for the Indianapolis Colts in 2009.

Witten might surpass them in the first half Sunday against New Orleans.

"There have been a lot of good tight ends over the years," Witten said. "To be able to do it, especially the way it started for me, is special. It took a lot of chemistry, a lot of work. Hopefully it will happen. If it doesn't, it doesn't matter. I think at this point in your career, I'm more proud we're in contention now than five weeks ago, when it wasn't looking too bright."

Because of the spleen injury, Witten got off to the slowest start of his 10-year career. He had only eight catches through the first three games and nearly as many drops. After somehow willing himself through the Giants game, he dropped three passes in the second game, at Seattle, and he had three more in the third game, at home against Tampa Bay. They were the kind of balls Witten routinely caught.

He didn't blame the spleen, but he couldn't ignore it. He said it was hard to move without thinking about it, and coach Jason Garrett said it was clear Witten wasn't quite right for about four weeks after the season started.

But the signs were there that he was going to be fine, that his career wasn't entering its downside.

"John Garrett, our tight ends coach, told me, 'You're getting past those guys, you've just got to catch it,'" he said.

In his fourth game, Witten caught 13 passes. Three games after that, he set an NFL single-game record for tight ends with 18 catches against the Giants. Since the first three games, Witten has averaged 8.1 catches a game.

"Jason Witten is having a historical year for the franchise, and he's already had a great career," Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. "He's playing the best he's ever played, in my opinion."

Not just his opinion.

"The best football that he's played in his 10-year career," John Garrett said. "He's in the best shape of his life. He's running faster than he ever has. He's blocking better than he ever has.... He's just been a great example of a guy who has just maintained excellent physical condition in his 10th year, and he really hasn't slowed down at all. And in fact, he's speeding up.

"He looks like he's 25 again."

Witten remembers being 21. He was a rookie tight end, couldn't do anything to please new coach Bill Parcells, and was afraid of being cut.

Everybody at Valley Ranch remembers a blocking drill where Parcells yelled sarcastically at Witten, "Oh, that's right! You're a receiving tight end!"

Witten smiled about the memory Thursday, but he credited Parcells for helping him become a complete tight end.

"Obviously he had an important part of my development as a young player, from Day 1 -- and I had a long way to go," Witten said. "He believed in me, and told me, 'If you trust me, I know the formula for tight ends.' I was just willing to work, and he taught me a lot."

But did that formula ever include the words "100-catch tight end?"

Witten laughed.

"No, it didn't," he said. "Hopefully I made him proud over the years."

Carlos Mendez 817-390-7760

Twitter: @calexmendez

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