clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The play that encapsulates Jason Witten’s brilliance was called ‘Tennessee’ in the Cowboys’ playbook

A go-to Witten play was also a nod to his Volunteers roots.

SEC Championship Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Jason Witten retired from the Cowboys, ending one of the most storied tight end carries ever. Before his 15 years in Dallas, he was a third-round pick out of Tennessee in 2003.

It turns out “Tennessee” played a big part of his Cowboys career, too. After Witten announced his retirement, his old quarterback, Tony Romo, wrote him a heartfelt open letter and put it on Instagram. Unpacking it reveals something about Witten’s technical greatness:

Beyond the compliments and the bromance that ooze throughout the note, there’s a brilliant in-game anecdote. Romo sets the scene of a 2014 playoff game against the Lions:

On the sideline, the coaches and I decided we would call two plays to ensure we got a good call. The problem was as I stood at the line of scrimmage that the Lions changed the defense from what they used all game. Without knowing for sure what they would be in, I changed both plays and went to “Tennessee, Tennessee.”

You see, I didn’t know what the perfect play was versus their coverage, but I did know the perfect player. Jason made a move that was rare but brought him wide open. Any high school QB could have delivered the ball. The secret to the play was trusting the best player to be the best player ... and he was.

On a late fourth-and-6, Witten did his thing on “Tennessee, Tennessee.”

It wasn’t Dallas’ initial play call. Fittingly, the audible check was a nod to Witten’s home state and alma mater, and it had him run an option route. The Detroit defender lined up on him was playing on his inside, and conventional wisdom says Witten should have run an out-breaking move when he got to the top of his route. He later explained why he didn’t:

“For whatever reason, [the defender] knew it was kinda coming, so at the very top of my route, he went to my low hip to kinda undercut it — make the interception and break it up. I felt him undercut it, and I just turned in.

And the best part about it is Tony didn’t even blink. If I’d have run it 100 times, 95 of them I’m probably breaking out. He saw it just as I felt it.”

Remember that Romo-Witten bromance? Romo probably doesn’t give himself enough credit for holding on just a beat longer for Witten to get himself open. That’s both Romo’s skill and the connection they built through thousands of repetitions together.

“It was a huge play. A play we’ll remember for a long time,” Witten said in that same interview after the conversion. He was right. The Cowboys went on to win. During his retirement send-off, former coach Jason Garrett was brought to tears when talking about a different time Witten broke down the play. Witten did so with a selfless attitude, lauding teammates and taking none of the credit.

The reviews of Witten’s game in Knoxville weren’t always glowing. He was a converted linebacker, which came through in some of his evaluations:

“Not a special separation guy,” one personnel director told me. “Average hip explosion.”

“Not a polished blocker,” another told me. “Sometimes he gets rag-dolled by guys smaller than him.”

“He should be the most physical one of the (tight end) bunch,” a coach told me. “But I didn’t see the toughness and speed I heard so much about.”

On the flip side, one personnel director raved about his interview at the combine. Another called him a “safe pick.” Six teams told me Witten was the top tight end on their board and one told me he was a potential first rounder. Another team had him as the second tight end on their board, another rated him the fourth tight end and still another the fifth.

Still, he showed some of the route-running shiftiness that would serve him well later:

All Witten did in the NFL was amass the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a tight end. His consistency and technical skills were his greatest attributes.

He missed one game over his illustrious career, and he routinely schooled defenders on the option route by excelling at the little things to get open — including in ‘Tennessee, Tennessee.’