DALLAS — From the broadcast booth to back on the gridiron, Jason Witten is returning to the Dallas Cowboys to compete with a young tight end corps for the top spot in the offense.
Though the 37-year-old spent a year away from playing football, the time off may be what keeps him fresh and counterbalances the inevitable rust Witten will face as the practice reps start to turn to live action in September.
"I do think it can benefit him," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told reporters Wednesday during the first week of organized team activities. "If you want to look at it, he had a year off, he's going to be rusty, is it going to take a little time to come back. I think you can look at it the other way to, it might freshen him up a little bit both physically and mentally. He's always been ready to go at a high level. I do think coming back, I think he's got a renewed spirit and it's going to help him and help our team."
In his final season with the Cowboys, the two-time All-Pro caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns. The only tight end who came close to replicating those numbers in Witten's off-year was Blake Jarwin, who hauled in 27 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games. Admittedly, the final numbers were bolstered by a Week 17 match-up with the New York Giants where Jarwin caught seven passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns.
Not only did Witten miss the sport, evidenced by the great shape he kept himself in despite being a color commentator for ESPN Monday Night Football, but the Cowboys missed having a dominant tight end.
"You don’t see many players walking away and coming back," said Garrett. "And for him to come back and just be in the shape that he’s been in says a lot about who he is and what he’s been able to accomplish over the course of his career."
Entering his 16th season, Witten has approached every facet with the enthusiasm of a player entering his sixth season, and it has been a credit to the team during OTAs given that linebacker Sean Lee and left tackle Tyron Smith didn't participate on Wednesday.
Said Garrett: "He’s been excited about every part of it ever since I met him and that hasn’t changed. The work that he’s done in the weight room in the offseason program has been outstanding. His testing numbers and all of that are what they’ve been or even better. And he just has an unbelievable way about him. Tremendous passion for the game. And he demonstrates that every day."
"Witt looks good," Garrett said. "He’s excited to be back and we’re certainly fortunate to have him back."
How that translates on the field is another story. If Witten records 10-plus catches in 2019, he will become the seventh tight end age 37 or older since 1950 to do so, according to Pro Football Reference. The most meritorious season a 37-year-old or older tight end had was in 2013 when Tony Gonzalez, age 37, caught 83 passes for 859 and eight touchdowns.
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