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Jason Witten’s return to Dallas Cowboys is ‘like he never left’ – NFL Nation


FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott thought he was done answering questions at the Reliant Home Run Derby last week when one more was thrown his way. This one was about tight end Jason Witten, stopping Prescott from walking away from a scrum of reporters and photographers.

“Oh, I’ll talk about Witt,” Prescott said, answering what it is like to have the veteran player as a teammate again.

“What he means to me, what he means to this offense, what he means to this team, what he means to these fans, just a great guy to be around, great guy to have in the locker room,” Prescott said. “And I know he’s excited about the direction we’re going. It’s only going to make this team and organization better.”

Thirteen months after Witten retired for the analyst’s role on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and almost three months since the Cowboys announced his return, the 37-year-old is taking part in organized team activities this week at The Star.

“It’s like he never left,” said linebacker Sean Lee, Witten’s second-longest-tenured teammate. “To see him run, he’s running great. He’s competing like he always has. It’s so fun to have him back just because of the great friendship we have with him, the leadership he shows. You come to work every day knowing Witt’s going to bring it, and you’ve got to take your game and work ethic to the next level.”

In Cowboys history, nobody has played in more games (239), played in more consecutive games (235), started more consecutive games (179) or caught more passes (1,152) for more yards (12,448) than Witten. He and Bob Lilly share the Cowboys’ record for most Pro Bowl appearances at 11.

Before he retired, Witten was the team’s unquestioned leader. He ran the offseason captains’ workouts and organized the leadership committee. Teammates ran any issues through Witten.

During his retirement news conference, Witten referenced handing over the leadership of the team to players such as Prescott, Lee, Zack Martin, Ezekiel Elliott and some others.

While Witten continues to be a member of the leadership committee that meets with Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, he now is among many voices but is not the lead voice.

“Fitting in with teammates has never been an issue for me,” Witten said. “It’s always something that came very natural. It was important for me to reiterate to them early on that this is their team, this is their time. It’s an opportunity for me to be a part of it.”

When the Cowboys moved into The Star in 2016, Garrett strategically placed Witten’s locker at one of the main access points, as he did with the core of the leaders. Martin moved into that space a year ago and remains there today, although Witten is now two lockers over from Martin.

“Obviously, if he wanted it, I would’ve given it to him,” Martin said, “but there was really no talk about it.”

As much as Witten would like to work quietly, teammates naturally defer to him. At Travis Frederick‘s Block out Hunger charity event last week, Witten was in the middle of every conversation of the nearly 25 players in attendance. They hung on his stories and jokes.

What he did in 15 NFL seasons carries weight.

“He’s as good a leader as I’ve ever been around,” Martin said. “It’s really great for the rookies that were rookies last year and the rookies this year to have such an incredible example for us to look at and see what it takes to be where he’s at.”

Multiple teammates have said Witten looks to be running faster than he did when he left. One said Witten ran the fastest 20-yard split of his career recently. While calling games for ESPN, Witten kept in good shape, but he dropped some pounds that he has had to put back on to handle all that the Cowboys ask a tight end to do.

“He looks like the same guy to me,” Garrett said. “He was doing different things, he was traveling the world, announcing football games, but you can tell he kept himself in shape and you can tell it’s been on his mind. He really hasn’t skipped a beat. Completely involved in our offseason program. … He’s moving well — again, we’re excited to have him back.”

Garrett said Witten is probably not far off from the 263 pounds he was listed at in his final few seasons.

“He looks fast, he looks quick, he looks flexible and is moving around really well,” the Cowboys coach said.

But fast has never been one of the top adjectives to describe Witten. “Ask the guys who are guarding him,” Garrett said.

Witten does not want to get into discussions about his offensive role in his return. He is not worried about more games played or started or catches or yards.

He is just glad to be on the field again, even if it is only for OTAs in May.

“I mean, look, it was a long nine months away and I think we all know how you go into making decisions [like returning],” Witten said. “It’s great to get back in there. I think having those captains’ workouts really allowed me to just kind of fit in. Maybe the first five minutes it was like, ‘OK, this is new.’ But you get acclimated with those guys, get back to work and put your head down. That’s kind of how I approached it. It’s been a good start, but I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.”



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Football

The Big Interview: Eric Weddle


To watch The Big Interview: Eric Weddle in its entirety, plus the rest of the The Big Interview series and more original SI programming, go to SI TV for a free seven-day trial.


I was driving from LAX to Thousand Oaks, Calif., where the next day I would watch film at the Rams facility with their new safety, Eric Weddle. As traffic came to another standstill I got a text from Weddle’s agent, David Canter. “Eric’s not happy about this,” it said. Below was a screen shot of my tweet from earlier that day:

What I thought had been an innocuous, casual sentiment had instead elicited many mixed, but strong, reactions. Those reactions had stood out for two reasons: 1. Several people offered smart, respectful opposing views, resembling something of a constructive, enriching dialogue—a unicorn on Twitter. 2. As usual, many dissenters trolled, but what was unusual was that dozens of the trolls were active NFL players. Their opposition was understandable; freedom in offseason workouts was the crown jewel of their 2011 CBA negotiations.

But now here was a player’s reaction that threatened actual consequence. I’d be damned if I was going to come all the way to L.A. only to lose a project over a harmless tweet. I exited the freeway and pulled into a fast food parking lot.

“Tell Eric it’s merely a thought I have, more than a strong opinion,” I texted Canter. “I have ‘liked’ plenty of smart tweets that raised counterpoints and argued against me. Was actually going to acknowledge those in a separate tweet here in a few minutes when I get out of the car.”

On the rest of the drive to Thousand Oaks, I thought of what I might say if Weddle backed out of our film session. After 30 minutes of this passive worrying, a text arrived from Weddle himself:

“Andy u good over there???? LOL”

“Was Canter messing with me?” I texted back, already sure of the answer and kicking myself for not considering that right away.

“Haha. Partially. I don’t get mad … Look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”


I was especially eager for the film session with Weddle because it felt like the universe had been arranging it for months. Never in my offseason meetings with coaches has a player’s name been raised—unsolicited—as much as Weddle’s was this year. Ravens coaches gushed about what his football IQ did for their No. 1-ranked defense. Opposing coaches said flat out that Weddle was what made that defense go. His play recognition was superb, but even more potent was his sense for pre-snap disguises, which gave teeth to Baltimore’s matchup-zone coverages and trademark pressure packages.

When I saw Canter at Boise State’s pro day in early April, I shared this.

“Not surprised,” Canter said. “I’ve never represented a player like him.

Canter describes attending a Utah game during Weddle’s senior season there.

“I was like ‘ho-ly sh–.’ I didn’t realize how ridiculously good he was. The Utes were up by a few points late. Weddle had dominated all game, including as a return guy. In those final minutes, he comes in on offense and starts taking wildcat snaps. He runs the ball play after play and totally ices the game. The whole stadium is chanting,”—and here Canter cups a fist to his mouth, mimicking a megaphone—“‘Wedddddllllle … Wedddddllllle … Wedddddllllle!’ Right then I told my assistant, ‘We must do everything in our power to sign this guy.’”


Pro football is largely an academic exercise. So much of the game is played at the line of scrimmage, before the snap. That’s where Weddle is magic. Post-snap, he’s always been versatile and fundamentally sound. At 34, he doesn’t pack quite as much athletic punch as in his Chargers heyday, but as one Ravens coach put it, “He can win almost entirely through his understanding of angles and leverage.” His angles and leverage are buttressed by his constant movement. Where Weddle aligns before the snap is not where he’ll be after it.

Rams safety Eric Weddle watches tape with The MMQB’s Andy Benoit.

The Rams are giddy about the new dimensions he’ll give their defense. Some coaches feel a subtle tug of pressure working with him because they’ve never dealt with such a smart player. He makes you raise your game. The term “coach on the field” is uttered a lot, but rarely by actual coaches. Weddle is the only non-quarterback I’ve heard referenced like this multiple times.

And so, naturally, our film session lived up to the hype. Weddle entered the room bellowing “Yo! Yo! Yo!” and the conversation flowed from there. He had an answer for everything, his explanations accentuated the “why” much more than the “what.” He considered the offense’s point of view. He knew how all the details fit into the big picture. He understood everything about his teammates’ responsibilities. This was emphasized towards the end when, on one play, Ravens cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey perfectly switched man-to-man assignments on the fly downfield. Weddle called it a “special play” by those two but wouldn’t reveal how they knew to make it. It was the only schematic tidbit that he withheld.

But he will tell Sean McVay what the corners did here before the Rams face the Ravens on Monday night this October, right?

No.

I told Weddle I didn’t believe him.

“You don’t know me then,” he said, dead serious. The moment threatened to take on tension, but he continued speaking. “What kind of man would I be if I rat out my guys that I played three years with? I cherish every relationship I made on that defense, on that team. The minute I say, ‘Here are all of their calls’ or ‘here are the checks to this,’ then what am I at the end of the day? I lose everything that I gained from there. And that means more to me than anything.”

That evening, McVay called to see how things went with his new safety. It wasn’t long before I said, “Eric claims he won’t reveal some of the Ravens’ man-to-man switch release rules when you guys get ready to play them!” McVay chuckled and said he wasn’t surprised; Weddle struck him as a uniquely loyal dude. (Then McVay’s curiosity took off and he listed several possibilities for what the coverage rule might be, growing increasingly frustrated that he didn’t have the play on film in front of him.)

A few days later I asked one of Weddle’s former defensive coaches if he thought the safety would indeed keep that detailed coverage rule under wraps when L.A. played Baltimore.

“With just about any other player, I’d say the guy would probably crack and share it once game week rolled around,” the coach said. “But Eric is different. He really values personal relationships and loyalty.”

Rams safety Eric Weddle watches tape with The MMQB’s Andy Benoit.

Before being released by the Ravens for cap savings, Weddle had said Baltimore would be his last NFL stop. But not many were surprised when, a few weeks later, his attitude seemed to change. Weddle loves football. Signing a two-year deal with the Rams brought him back to Southern California, where he grew up (Fontana) and spent the first nine years of his professional life (San Diego). Just as importantly, it brought him to a bona fide title contender.

Watch Andy Benoit’s Big Interview film room session with Eric Weddle in its entirety, plus more original content from Sports Illustrated, with a 7-day free trial to SI TV.


Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.



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