Through the playoff failures and the coaching changes, through the 8-8 seasons and the 4-12 misery, one Dallas Cowboy has remained the franchise’s rock.
You can complain about the coaching. You can complain about the owner. You can complain about the quarterback.
But for 13 seasons, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done his job —both on the field and off — as few in the NFL ever have.
Not surprisingly, it was Witten’s idea to open training camp two weeks ago with an arm-in-arm unity ceremony with Dallas city leaders and the families of the fallen police officers.
The NFL vetoed the idea this week of the Cowboys wearing a special helmet decal that showed their community support. And it was Witten who graciously deflected the league’s decision and promised Thursday that the team’s sentiments will live on.
“I understand the NFL’s got uniform rules and guidelines that they’ve got to follow,” Witten said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re still not going to support our community and stand arm in arm with them now and in the future.”
As part of the camp’s annual opening ceremony, the players linked arms with the officers’ family members, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Chief David Brown and walked to midfield in a powerful display of support.
“It was a special day,” Witten said. “That was the right thing to do. Anybody that was a part of that day felt the emotion, how raw and real and authentic it was.
“We’ll move forward. We understand the guidelines of the league. That doesn’t stop what our real message was and what we’re trying to do.”
Witten described the arm-in-arm walk as one of the highlights of his 14 years with the team.
Which is when it hit me. Witten is entering his 14th NFL season, which means his career has spanned from Bill Parcells to Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett. He has shared huddles with Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe.
His career has spanned 208 games, and Witten has played in 207 of them.
The one-time third-round draft pick (2003) from Tennessee was asked about his age — again — after Thursday’s practice.
“It’s interesting you say that, but it’s a little bit of a misnomer,” said Witten, who is 34. “We treat Michael Phelps like he’s 47, and all he does is just keep winning golds for us. He’s relatively close to my age.
“I think it starts over for me every year. That’s why I work so hard in [strength and conditioning coordinator Mike] Woicik’s program. I like my numbers, where I’m at with my program and what I try to do to get myself ready.”
The numbers show Witten’s remarkable consistency. His career statistics include 1,020 catches for 11,215 yards. He has been chosen for the Pro Bowl 10 times.
Witten should be a fixture on anybody’s top 10 list of all-time NFL tight ends. He is the one certain Hall of Famer on the current Cowboys roster.
“Look, I’ve never been a burner,” he said. “I’ve made my hay on angles, attacking the schemes and understanding coverages — that’s where I’ve been my best as a football player.
“You’re always trying to be the best tight end. That’s where you set your goals. You just want to help your football team win.”
Witten joked that if he’s still playing three years from now — and why wouldn’t he? — people are still going to question his age and his foot speed.
That’s why he mentioned another “old man” in the news lately, swimmer Michael Phelps.
Witten knows his role and he’s done it better than any tight end in a Cowboys uniform ever has.
In this, his 14th season, it’s as good a rock for the Cowboys to lean on as they will find.