Some members of the organization are quietly questioning the team’s decision to bring back tight end Jason Witten.
No one will publicly dispute the decision but it was met with rolled eyes, wonderment and distancing.
Yet, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones echoes coach Jason Garrett in saying that he doesn’t see the soon to be 37-year-old as a progress stopper for the young tight ends on the roster.
Jones also said Witten’s decision to come out of retirement one year after spending last season as an ESPN broadcaster for Monday Night Football will not impact the team’s decision to pick a tight end high in the 2019 NFL Draft if one was available.
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“It won’t do anything but accentuate what the tight end, what Witten’s position can do on our team,” Jones said over the weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It will do that. It won’t deter us in any way of using our first pick for a tight end if we have the opportunity to. And I don’t look at Witten as a progress stopper. I think when you look at how hopefully we can spread the ball around, put enough stuff in during the OTAs, put enough stuff in training camp, call them as we go through the season, I think that Witten will have his place. He’s certainly has got his place in what we do in our blocking and protection and running.”
Most importantly, Jones said Witten’s return is about improving the Cowboys and helping them win in 2019. He said they never replaced him last season.
Witten, who is entering his 16th season, had 63 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns the last time he suited up in 2017 when he was considered a declining player.
Four Cowboys tight ends combined for 78 catches and four touchdowns in 2018, led by Blake Jarwin with 27 catches for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Geoff Swaim caught 26 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown. But he ended the season on injured reserve. He is a free agent and is not expected to return.
“While we had functioning blocking and functioning execution with our tight end, we still weren’t what we were when Jason was there the year before. And that’s not to criticize anybody. It’s just that we weren’t,” Jones said. “He will elevate us there. So no I don’t think he’s a progress stopper. I’ve gotten down as to what he is going to be for us, but he’s well worth the roster spot. He’s well worth the time on the field to improve us. I think you can just mark some improvement right there, the fact that he’s going to be out there for those plays.”
Jones believes Witten fits what the Cowboys want to do with their passing game under new coordinator Kellen Moore, though he will be asked to do things he hasn’t done before.
But Jones said he will also bring back the reliability of the six-yard reception the Cowboys can trust and count on.
“We’re going to be incorporating a broader range of drafts in our passing game concepts and so Witten has the opportunity to do some things he hasn’t done,” Jones said. “But Jason Witten, a lot of times when you have a six-yard pass, that doesn’t seem as impressive as hitting (running back) Zeke (Elliott) up there for a six-yard run. But that’s Jason Witten a lot of times. My whole point is, those short passes, five and six yards, are as exciting and as productive as the runs. I’m really answering that in a context of Jason Witten. That’s what we hope to have. I love Jason Witten.”
Jones also offered insight into Witten’s mindset and said he was not surprised he came out of retirement. He always knew Witten was interested in still playing, dating back to last season when he initially made the decision, as well as his desire to coach one day.
“He wasn’t totally, totally and completely convicted about never playing again,” Jones said. “That was bothersome to him when he made the decision. It never left. It was always there. Nothing surprised me about his desire to do that or his desire to be on the field and looking into his future, his desire to be involved directly into the football coaching aspect of it. As a matter of fact, we both agreed that his time as a broadcaster wouldn’t preclude him from being a coach. But it was just more than he wanted to endure, so he came back to play.”