Jason Witten’s retirement lasted one year.
The future Hall of Famer announced he’d return to the gridiron with the only NFL team he’s ever known, the Dallas Cowboys, in a surprising reveal Thursday morning.
Witten had spent the 2018 season as a color commentator on Monday Night Football, pointing out the obvious and misidentifying both players and plays over the course of five arduous months. That proximity to the game may have only stoked his desire to play, and now he’s headed back to a tight end-needy Dallas team in hopes he can make the Cowboys the first repeat NFC East champion in nearly two decades.
“The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” Witten said in a statement. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”
The 36-year-old spent 15 seasons in the NFL, emerging as one of the league’s most dependable receivers in the process. He missed only a single game — way back in 2003 — despite being a favorite target for quarterbacks ranging from Quincy Carter to Drew Bledsoe to Tony Romo to Dak Prescott. His 1,152 receptions and 12,448 receiving yards are both second in NFL history behind 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Tony Gonzalez.
What does this mean for the Cowboys?
Dallas got a major midseason boost by adding Amari Cooper to its lineup, but the team is still devoid of receiving talent behind him. This is especially true at tight end, where Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz, and Rico Gathers formed a four-man Voltron incapable of denting opposing defenses. That group combined for 68 catches and 710 receiving yards last fall — numbers roughly in line with Witten’s averages over his last three seasons before retirement.
With longtime third-down safety net Cole Beasley set to hit free agency, Prescott needed a reliable target to take some pressure from Cooper’s shoulders. He’ll have to hope Witten, who will turn 37 this May, is the answer. While the dynamic tight end’s yards per target fell as time chipped away at his speed and explosiveness, he remained a reliable pair of hands over the middle; he caught more than 73 percent of his targets between 2015 and 2017.
What does this mean for Jason Witten?
Witten will have to prove his year in the broadcasting booth has recharged his batteries. While he remained a perfectly useful starting tight end through his mid-30s, he wasn’t the same dynamic force that made the Dallas offense so dangerous in the early stages of his career.
PFF grades for Jason Witten since 2006! pic.twitter.com/j87lXVopQr— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 27, 2018
Excluding his rookie year, Witten recorded career lows in targets per game (5.4), catches per game (3.9), and yards per reception (8.9) in 2017. Did his year away from the game allow him to heal up any nagging injuries and return to his early 30s form? Or will another spin around the sun only compound the slowly creeping forces that eventually drag all NFL stars, even an ageless bruiser like Witten, off the gridiron?
On the plus side, he’ll get at least $3.5 million for his efforts to boost the Cowboys’ passing offense.
What does this mean for Monday Night Football?
The weeknight broadcast needs to find a new color commentator. ESPN expressed its gratitude for Witten’s service in a statement Thursday.
Uhh, he didn't do any of that stuff you just said, Jason Witten pic.twitter.com/gkxfAtsCJE— Eldridge (Pkwy) Recasner (@DavidInAlief) August 21, 2018
Witten said this was Tampa-2 pic.twitter.com/akU1OxLxMH— Syed Schemes (@syedschemes) October 30, 2018
Witten every single play:— Frank Passalacqua (@randomfrankp) October 2, 2018
“The tight end is open!!! He’s got Kelce open!”
*shows replay, 3 guys are draped all over Kelce
“This is why Gurley is so good” - Jason Witten after a 1-yard loss— Andy Holloway (@andyholloway) November 20, 2018
Jason Witten gets paid for this pic.twitter.com/6g3q0z41sV— Andrew Joseph (@AndyJ0seph) October 16, 2018