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.
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.”
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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.”