Jason Witten is signed with the Dallas Cowboys through the 2021 season. That sounds almost ridiculous.
"I signed it,'' Witt told DallasCowboys.com, "and it was back to work.''
Yeah, work for the long haul.
You realize that if Witten fulfills the contract — and there is no guarantee that he will (Fish has the Witten contractual breakdown here) — he would play 19 seasons in the NFL? That’s nuts for a position player. That’s longevity usually reserved for kickers and punters, not players who play practically every offensive snap of nearly every game of their career at a physically punishing level.
So it got me thinking — what does this mean for Witten’s career? The overarching point here is that Witten wants to win a Super Bowl ring and believes the Cowboys are on the doorstep. This is a guy that, a month ago, told reporters that after 2017 he wasn’t sure how much longer he wants to play. So there’s commitment here from both sides.
Some of it, I’m sure, massages the salary cap (including the opportunity at $4 mil in space this year). But would anyone bet against Witten playing the entire length of the deal?
I wouldn’t. So let’s take a look at how a final Witten contract could play out for his career, based on career averages and league rankings at both tight end and wide receiver.
With the Dallas Cowboys
His reputation with the Cowboys is secure. There is no dispute he’s the best tight end in team history. One could make the argument he’s the best pass-catcher, period, in team history. He already owns the team record for receptions (1,079). In fact, no other Cowboy has more than 750 receptions. He needs 17 yards to pass Michael Irvin for most receiving yards in team history (Witten has 11,888) and needs nine touchdowns to pass Bob Hayes for most touchdown receptions in team history (Witten has 63). To be fair, Witten will have a hard time ending his career as the Cowboys’ all-time leader in that category, assuming Dez Bryant continues to play at a high level for the next several years. Bryant already has 67 touchdown receptions and is four behind Hayes.
But Witten is an all-time great in Cowboys history. Of that there can be no dispute.
In the NFL
What about NFL history? As I mentioned, if Witten plays the full length of the deal he will have 19 NFL seasons. No other full-time tight end will have played more seasons than Witten in that scenario, unless Antonio Gates decides to play another five seasons. He’s played 14 seasons, too.
Witten has played 223 regular-season games, and has not missed a game since his rookie season. In fact, Witten has missed just one game in his entire NFL career, making him one of the most durable players in its history. Right now he’s tied for No. 127 on the all-time list for games played. Here are the tight ends listed ahead of him:
Tony Gonzalez (1997-2013), 270 games
Pete Metzellars (1982-1997), 235 games
Note: Trey Junkin played 282 games and is listed as a TE, but played most of his career as a long snapper.
That’s it. That’s the list.
If Witten played five more seasons, and he played 16 games each year, he will have played 303 games. No tight end has ever done that. Right now there are 10 players in NFL history that have played 300 or more games. The only three pure position players on the list are George Blanda (who was also a kicker but played 104 games at quarterback), Jerry Rice and Brett Favre. In this scenario he could pass Favre by one game and tie Rice for seventh place all-time.
Witten’s durability has been amazing, and if he can keep it up for five more seasons it would push him toward the highest echelon of the game.
Games played is one thing. Numbers are another. We mentioned Witten’s career numbers earlier, but here is how Witten compares to other tight ends on the all-time list:
Receptions: 1,079, second behind Gonzalez (1,325)
Yards: 11,888, second behind Gonzalez (15,127)
Touchdowns: 63 (Gonzalez and Gates lead this list for TEs with 111)
Witten is well behind in touchdowns, but his numbers for receptions and yards are second behind Gonzalez, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. When you include wide receivers, Witten is No. 7 all-time in receptions and No. 27 in receiving yards. So let’s assume Witten plays all five seasons and plays all 16 games each of those seasons. This is what his career numbers would look like assuming his career ends after 2021 (using his career averages of 72.6 catches, 792.5 yards, and 4.2 touchdowns per season):
Career after 19 seasons: 1,452 receptions, 15,850 yards, 84 touchdowns.
If everything holds, Witten would end his career as the all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards among tight ends. It would also make him No. 2 overall in receptions (behind Jerry Rice) and No. 3 overall in receiving yards (behind Rice and Terrell Owens). It will be hard for Witten to catch Gates in tight end touchdowns (after all, Gates isn’t retiring yet), but Witten could creep up into the Top 20 overall in touchdown receptions.
Now, assuming Witten will continue to produce at that level seems kind of crazy, right? But here’s the thing. I’ve written these pieces for quite some time and one thing I’ve learned is that elite players tend to produce at an elite level longer, especially if they avoid serious injury. For proof you need go no further than Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s last five years in the NFL — right around Witten’s age in fact — did not see a downturn in his production. He had no fewer than 70 catches in any of his last five seasons, all in Atlanta. In fact, in his next-to-last season in the NFL Gonzalez caught 93 passes, and his receptions only dropped to 83 in his final season. And he proved just as durable as Witten. Gonzalez missed two games his entire career. So let’s compare Gonzalez’s totals for his final five years to the totals for the five years preceding his final five years:
Final five years: 409 receptions, 4,187 yards, 35 TDs
Five years preceding: 448 receptions, 5,293 yards, 29 TDs
Gonzalez’s numbers at the tail end of his career were comparable to the numbers he produced in what should be considered the prime of his career.
Like I said, elite players produce at an elite level longer.
Now, there are many variables we can’t account for. The Cowboys could win a Super Bowl in the next few year and Witten could decide to hang it up right then. No one would blame him. At that point he’ll have done everything a football player can do. He could get hurt, heaven forbid. I mean, this guy played a month after rupturing his spleen for crying out loud. Sadly, it would probably take something career-ending to keep him out of the lineup. Or his performance could decline more precipitously than he or the team wants or expects, leading to his release. Or it could be a cap thing that finally ends Witten’s tenure in Dallas.
Witten’s place in NFL history is not in dispute. He’s a Cowboys Ring of Honor member in waiting. He’s a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer in waiting. The next five years are about one thing — winning a Super Bowl ring. If Witten wins a ring, there’s a chance he’ll probably cement himself as the greatest tight end of all-time at the same time.