FRISCO, Texas — Each Wednesday last season, Jason Witten would break down film at an office not far from his home, going through the same routine he had during his entire career with the Dallas Cowboys.
The remote never left his hand as he watched play after play on a laptop for hours, prepping as the Monday Night Football analyst for ESPN. Pictures of his family adorned the wall behind his desk. A television hung on one wall, and he had a white board on wheels filled with notes.
“That was one of my favorite things to do on Monday Night Football, watch both sets of offense and defense, just the preparation,” Witten said. “Somewhere along the way I hoped I could pass that along to the producer, the director and, ‘Hey, if this comes up, let’s capitalize on it.'”
Witten, 37, is once again on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, but the perspective will not come from the TV booth inside MetLife Stadium. Instead. Witten is back on the Cowboys’ sideline for the 247th time in a 16-year career as Dallas plays at the New York Giants (8:15 p.m. ET).
“He’s born for this,” tight end Blake Jarwin said.
Witten’s television experience was not what he had hoped, but the reviews of his on-air work were not what prompted him to return to the Cowboys after one season.
He chose to come back because he missed everything about playing football — nothing more than the Monday-to-Saturday grind for the Sunday test.
“When they bring a blitz on second-and-11, you can have success because you prepared the right way,” Witten said. “I just love football and love the challenge and the chess match, watching the coordinators, what those guys do well and then seeing it play out.”
Witten’s Wednesdays now are spent in the tight ends room at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
There is a flat screen hanging in the front of the room. Five chairs circle the desk, and there are white boards for notes. In the other position rooms, pictures of Cowboys’ Hall of Famers at those positions adorn the walls. One day, Witten’s picture will grace the wall of the tight ends room when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
‘He looks at football differently’
After the early morning installation meetings for the entire offense, the first tight end meeting of the week starts the same way: “Hey, Witt, what do you think of these guys?” Cowboys tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier will ask.
For 20 to 30 minutes, Witten will go through detailed reports on the defensive ends, linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks the Cowboys will see that week.
“He’s got a lot of background with these teams, and when the guys hear him talk, it affects the room in a positive way,” Nussmeier said. “It shows the younger players how in-depth he is in his preparation. The detail, how he does it consistently week in and week out. What’s their best moves? How should you attack it? What are the things to be concerned about?”
Jason Witten returns to the #DallasCowboys after taking a year off from the field. Hear what the rest of the team’s tight ends say about how Witten’s time away has helped the room grow. pic.twitter.com/YbwJ4DSIIY
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) June 28, 2019
It is not just information about the players Witten has played against that he can provide. James Bettcher is in his second year as Giants defensive coordinator, so Jarwin and Dalton Schultz have familiarity with him from the 2018 season. But Witten played against Bettcher twice when the coach was with the Arizona Cardinals.
“He knows how they like to play a lot of defenses, how they play a lot of their personnel,” said Cole Hikutini, a tight end on the Cowboys’ practice squad. “It’s just his insight from what he’s picked up over the years … He’s a genius. He looks at football differently than anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Jarwin remembers Witten calling out a potential wrinkle in a coverage a defense had not shown in their previous games, and, sure enough, it showed up when they played the Cowboys.
“That’s just from experience and seeing it and studying, studying, studying,” Jarwin said. “He does a great job just helping us young guys along.”
Entering the season, Jarwin and Schultz had combined for 39 receptions for 414 yards and three touchdowns. Witten entered 2019 as the Cowboys’ all-time leader in receptions (1,125) and yards (12,448). Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez is the only tight end in NFL history with more catches and yards than Witten.
Witten did not return to catch more passes, but through seven games he has 26 receptions for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He is on a similar pace to his production he had in 2017 when he played 98% of the snaps (he’s playing 75% of the snaps through seven games this season).
‘Talking graduate school’
In addition to missing the daily grind to compete for a championship and prove he can still play at a high level, he wanted to tutor the Cowboys’ younger players.
“It’s friggin’ sweet,” said Schultz, a fourth-round pick in 2018. “I mean, I watch myself out here this year and so many things, whether it be active or passive, that I’ve taken from his game, whether it’s stacking up on a [corner] route and sticking it, giving head and shoulder fakes, slight stems just to keep a guy frozen there. That’s stuff I wasn’t even thinking about last year. Now it’s starting to compound into my game. The influence that he’s had on the room so far is pretty heavy.”
The challenge for Nussmeier is pushing Witten intellectually while not talking over the heads of the younger tight ends.
“It’s not like you’re talking at a 100 or 200 [college class] level. It’s 400 or 500. You’re talking graduate school now,” Nussmeier said. “For them to hear those discussions and hear the answers, that’s what tells them that there’s another level and you have to grow and understand. It’s not only what it means for the tight end, but how it fits the whole offense and how it relates to attacking the defense.”
Nussmeier is Witten’s eighth tight ends coach.
“He’s going to challenge you every day,” Nussmeier said. “You better be on your A game because he asks all the tough questions. Very intense. Very driven. It’s not OK for him for it to just be OK. He wants it to be exactly right. That’s a characteristic you see in a lot of great players.”
Witten’s sideline demeanor can be caustic. Nobody is immune, from teammates to coaches to the medical staff.
NFL Films cameras caught Witten on film during the New York Jets‘ game: “I’m gonna say this as calmly as I know how: Field goals aren’t going to win this f—ing game, man. We need a f—ing touchdown!”
“Witten is a very intense, prideful, wants-to-win, Hall of Fame player, and you have to come up to his level,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “He wants his teammates to come to his level as far as his passion and his desire and his want-to. He’s been in the league for a long time. He wants to win a championship, and you love that about him. He gets fired up, but you know what? We know it’s coming from a place of love and a place of wanting to win.”
As game day approaches and most of the work is done, Nussmeier plays a game with his tight ends.
“It’s like, ‘Stump the Room,'” he said. “We’ll throw out questions from what’s in the game plan, that’s different from what’s in the game plan and see who gets it right. We make it real, and we all know it’s important stuff. It’s not just playing it for the fun of it. The game on the field is going to be played at a high level, and we’ve got to be able to adjust.
“Sometimes those thing are simple. Sometimes it’s not simple, but you’ve got to have the answers to the test before the test. [Witten is] always attacking it. … If you know and know you know, you’ll have conviction. If you’re not sure, you probably won’t have that conviction.”
Witten has missed one question so far.
“It might’ve been something on what we kill a play to if we get a different look,” Witten said. “He got me, but I know this — I make it damn hard. But that’s what I love talking about. OK, the guy’s lined up tight or he’s wider, what do we do? If he has inside leverage on this coverage, I’m going to do this. And then sharing that with the guys, with [quarterback] Dak [Prescott], so he knows what I’m thinking. That’s the fun part of it.”