Dirk Nowitzki is known for his one-legged fadeaway. Adrian Beltre puts it over the fence on one knee. Jason Witten, meanwhile, has the Y-option.
It may not have been the flashiest or sexiest route in football, but Witten perfected it. He became a security blanket for every quarterback he played with because of it.
"This was his play — his signature play," coach Jason Garrett said. "He’s got over 1,100 catches — probably half of them were on Y-option. He caught 18 balls against the Giants a few years ago [in 2012] — probably half of those were on Y-option."
It’s a simple route, really. Witten typically runs 10 yards and breaks inside, outside or sits down on his route, facing back to the quarterback to make himself an available target.
The nuances of the route, though, are what make it work. Witten has to identify who’s defending him and the type of coverage an opposing defense is playing. He then knows how to shift his weight, how to use his hands and how to leverage the defender to get open.
"It’s one of the great givens in all of sports," Garrett said. "They say [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook was the greatest given — I’ll put Witten’s Y-option against it any day of the week."
Witten spent a countless number of hours working on it with former quarterback Tony Romo.
"We came up with Y-option," Witten said. "It was probably called something else, but we kind of came up with that route. It’s just a lot of time spent working at our craft."
The most memorable Y-option route between Romo and Witten happened in the 2014 wild-card round against the Detroit Lions.
Trailing 20-17 with 6:00 minutes left, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-6 from the Lions 42. The Cowboys were going for it in that instance, and Romo connected with Witten on the Y-option for 21 yards.
Six plays later, Romo found Terrance Williams for a game-winning 8-yard touchdown pass. It marked just the second playoff win for the Cowboys in the last 22 years.
Garrett recalled that play during Witten’s retirement news conference on Thursday because the following training camp Witten broke down the Y-option in meticulous detail during a late-night team meeting.
Witten used that play as an example. Witten described what he saw and felt, Garrett explained, but went on to credit his teammates.
"He says, 'I’ll tell you why this play really worked,'" Garrett said, getting emotional.
"I want you to look at Dez Bryant here, he’s our X receiver. They played two-man for one reason — Dez Bryant. You need a guy underneath and you need a guy on top. Dez Bryant’s one of the best receivers in the National Football League, he deserves that attention."
Witten went on to praise the offensive line working together on that play. He talked about the other receivers and running back DeMarco Murray drawing attention off him. And, of course, he talked about Romo’s instincts and awareness to hit him on that play.
"So it struck me that this play, his signature play, he made it at the critical moment and he didn’t make it about him," Garrett said. "He does what he always does. He makes it about everybody else. He made it about the team."