Q&A: Veteran tight end Jason Witten discusses the Cowboys’ season and ‘bright future’
Last week, ahead of Super Bowl 51, and a few weeks removed from Dallas's dramatic playoff loss to the Packers, Cowboys TE Jason Witten talked to SI.com's Chris Burke about a variety of topics, including Dak Prescott's success, Tony Romo's future, his own rookie year, and whether or not he thinks about his chances at the Hall of Fame. Witten spoke us on behalf of Courtyard, the “Official Hotel of the NFL.” The below Q&A has been edited and condensed, and you can watch the interview in full right here.
Chris Burke: Do you consider this season a success because of everything you accomplished or is it a disappointment because of how it ended?
Jason Witten: It’s hard to look at this opportunity and know that we came up short. Give Green Bay credit, Aaron and those guys played well. But we felt like we had a really good team and with what Dak [Prescott] and Zeke [Elliott] brought to our football team, we were playing at a high, high level. So yeah, it’s tough. You know how hard it is to get to those rounds and to play in those games and when you come up short in Year 14 as a leader of the team, it’s disappointing. But when I look back and think…back in August when Tony went down, we're playing our rookie quarterback, and to think we'd go on to win 11 straight and be 13–3 and lay a foundation for a really good football team…players played well, coaches coached well, and the future is bright in Dallas. But in this league it’s so hard to get back to those games. So it was a good season, we did a lot of good things, to be 13–3, win the 1 seed and the East, those are all things to build on. But you play to have those opportunities to compete and play in the Super Bowl, and when you come up short, it’s certainly a tough blow.
CB: You mentioned Dak and Zeke and their impressive first seasons. What do you remember about your rookie season?
JW: How long it is, for one. I also remember how much time it took to get to that first game with Coach Parcells. I was a little bit of a whipping boy, being made an example of in the team meeting, so I was humbled a little bit. I also broke my jaw in that season. So you always face adversity and you come back and by midseason I felt I was really hitting my stride. I just know how hard it is to play this game as a rookie and what Zeke and Dak have done and how well they’ve played really reminds me of that.
CB: Why do you think the learning curve is so steep for tight ends to be receiving threats in this league?
JW: I don’t know that it’s a learning curve, I think it’s just a hard position to play. In this system in Dallas, until you can consistently block at the point of attack under Parcells’s system, they weren't going to put you in to go catch seam balls. I think guys are making the transition easier and easier year in and year out than it was 20 years ago, even 14 years ago for me, but I think that in college football, you can get on the perimeter and spread out, there’s a lot of check down, underneath stuff and in pro football, the coverage is tight. And as tight ends are understanding coverages, where I need to be, the rotation of coverages and all that goes into it, it makes it a little bit more challenging of a situation. But the quicker you can do it and grasp it, the more success you’re going to have.
CB: I can remember a little further back, the Citrus Bowl when you were at Tennessee against my Michigan Wolverines on January 1, 2002, and you had one of the longest catches of your career in that game, a 64-yard touchdown.
JW: Yeah, it was a neat play. It’s funny, that’s one of my favorite plays, and what a great game it was. Michigan was ranked high, it was a great matchup of two historically great organizations and Universities and it was a lot of fun. The play that I scored on was the same one that I caught when my helmet came off in ’07, so it’s kind of a tight end’s dream, it’s off the little option route that tight ends run so much of. So it’s been a good play for me, those are probably my best two plays in college and in pros.
CB: Have you given any thought to your status when it comes to the Hall of Fame? Do you think that’s a realistic end game for you?
JW: I really haven’t put a ton of thought into it. I’ve been so focused on playing and going out and being a leader of this team and I certainly still think I can play this position at a high level. But having said that, I have so much respect for the Hall of Fame and the men that make up the Hall of Fame. I was fortunate a few years back to be able to go up there and spend some time there—I’m like Coach Madden, I’d love to be able to sit in there at 2, 3 in the morning and hear those guys talk in there. It’s so hard to get there and hopefully my stats will speak for themselves and before it’s all said and done, I’ll have one of these Super Bowl rings that’ll help that. But I really never played to get the accolades. I played to have a chance to win and be around guys that have that same commitment.
CB: I'm not going to ask you specifically about a future replacement for you, but what about the young tight ends that have come through on the Cowboys roster, are there any there that you think have potential to be good in the future?
JW: The Cowboys have done a good job at developing young players. James Hanna who has been there four or five years with me, he got hurt this year but he should be able to come back. We have another young player in Geoff Swaim who has a chance to have a good future. And interestingly enough, we drafted a basketball player, Rico Gathers, out of Baylor, and he’s someone that could develop into a good player. So I’m there to help them, encourage them and see them grow. But for me, I just focus on playing, playing at a high level, and when you can’t do that any longer, you’ve got to get off the train.
CB: What are your thoughts on how Tony Romo handled his situation this year and what his role is on this team?
JW: Tony’s been a tremendous player for a long time. He’s earned the seat at the table the last decade for how he’s played the position. You never want to see anyone going down the way Tony did, certainly for me it was a setback at the time. And Dak came in, played extremely well and I think Tony handled it with class, which speaks a lot to his legacy and who he is. The guys has played a lot of good football and I’m sure if he has that itch, he’ll be able to go out there and still play at a high level and I don’t think any of us would expect any less. But I’m sure he’s taking some time to rest and clear his mind and although I’d probably be surprised if he retired, I don’t think any of us know what his plans are looking forward.
CB: You talked about that option route that’s been so good for you in your career. How long did it take you to get comfortable with Dak running that route?
JW: Dak’s done a great job at watching it, seeing it and talking about it with me. And we completed it a lot. We're still getting there, but he did a good job, we had a big completion that set up our field goal in the Green Bay playoff game that I did a little something different and he was ready right away to throw it. Dak’s a great young player who has that knack. I’ve worked at that play a long time, Tony and I spent a lot of hours trying to perfect it, so just like anything that you prepare for and work at, to see it play out and have success with it, that’s something you take a lot of pride in. You want to be able to run seam routes and do all that, but to have something that you can hang your hat on and know that it’s going to convert first downs, that’s what tight ends are paid to do. And I’ve certainly taken a lot of pride in that over the years.