Jason Witten announced the end of his 15-year career two weeks ago. He left a lasting legacy with the Dallas Cowboys with several players and coaches saying he set the "standard" of what it means to be a member of the organization on and off the field.
He left a mark on those who have been in the organization for years, and those for just a few weeks. The team had yet to take down Witten’s nameplate from his old locker at The Star during rookie minicamp last week.
"He's made a big impact," coach Jason Garrett said. "The guy who sat in that locker and the locker over at Valley Ranch made a big impact in this organization and this league for a long, long time. I believe his impact will be long-lasting around here. We talked about the standard he established as a player and as a person, and we’re going to try to uphold those standards that he set for 15 years in his Hall of Fame career. We wish him nothing but the best."
Witten, 36, walked away from the game to become the lead analyst on ESPN’sMonday Night Football. Before accepting that job, though, he had been preparing for a 16th season in the league.
Heck, even new tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier thought he’d be coaching Witten.
"Well, sure, that’s what I thought was going to happen, but obviously what an outstanding career," said Nussmeier, who served as Florida’s offensive coordinator the previous three seasons.
"You talk about a guy who defines the term 'pro' at his position, greatest of all time. I had an opportunity to be around him for a little bit of time. It’s been great to have such a great example here for a long time These guys understand what the expectation for the position is here and we’re striving to get there."
The Cowboys have five tight ends on their roster for now. Geoff Swaim, a 2015 seventh-round pick out of Texas, is the longest-tenured and the only who has caught a regular-season pass (nine in his career).
The Cowboys like the potential of Blake Jarwin, who joined the organization as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State last year and was active in one game. Rico Gathers remains a work-in-progress, transitioning from Baylor basketball standout to tight end.
And the Cowboys added a couple rookies. They used a fourth-round pick on Stanford’s Dalton Schultz and signed San Diego State’s David Wells as an undrafted free agent.
All will get an opportunity to show what they can do. After all, there weren't many snaps to be had behind Witten, who played about 97 percent of the offensive snaps last season.
"It’s an exciting group of guys. I’m really looking forward to getting to work with them and really like the work ethic and dedication," Nussmeier said. "[Witten retiring] is a great opportunity for them and there’s going to be great competition at the position. These guys are eager. They’re hungry. We’ve got a steep learning curve ahead, but very willing and we’ll go to work every day to get better."
For Swaim, Jarwin and Gathers, they got to see first-hand how Witten approached every day to become one of the most durable tight ends in NFL history. Schultz didn’t get that opportunity, but he is well aware of the type of player Witten was.
Schultz studied Witten meticulously during his college career.
"I thought he was the most complete tight end in the NFL, especially breaking him down and watching what he was able to do, not only in-line but man-to-man routes," Schultz said last week at the rookie minicamp. “People always (say) he's not the quickest guy. I think he's deceptively quick, especially when you’re out there watching him, people don't know.
"But to see the nuance and his route-running ability and how he gets open and how smooth he is as an athlete, was something that jumped out at me right away in film. I’ve tried to take as much as I could over my college career especially, picking out little things, whether it be run-blocking or route running, to kind of help implement into my game."
Schultz has been peppered with questions comparing him to Witten in his short time with the Cowboys, and understands that link likely won’t go away his entire career. But Schultz put it all in perspective.
"This is my 14th year of playing football ever … in my life," the 21-year-old Schultz said. "And he’s had 15 years in the league. When you put it in perspective like that – it’s not better that he’s gone. Having a guy like that around would only be good for everybody."
All things come to an end, though, and Witten’s time as a member of the Cowboys ended two weeks ago. But, as Garrett said, the impact he left will be long-lasting.