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Witten, at 35, ‘more motivated than ever’

STEVE WILMOTH, TriCitiesSports.com • Jun 18, 2017 at 11:30 AM

ELIZABETHTON — Most NFL players don’t enjoy a career resurgence in their 14th year in the league.

Yet that was the case for both Elizabethton native and 10-time All-Pro Jason Witten and the Dallas Cowboys this past season.

Though Witten continued to put up solid statistics year after year, the Cowboys appeared far from contending for the Super Bowl championship so coveted by Witten. But thanks to a pair of rookies, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, Dallas went 13-3 in the regular season and entered the playoffs as one of the NFC favorites before falling to the Green Bay Packers in their playoff opener at home.

“It was a great year,” Witten said. “I don’t think anybody planned it out the way it happened. It was a really unique team. We came up short, but I’m motivated now more than ever with what lies ahead.”

What lies ahead is largely because of Elliott and Prescott.

Elliott was the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft out of Ohio State. He went on to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards and was third with 15 touchdowns.

Annual Witten camp remains “one of those special days”

Jason Witten SCORE Foundation Football Camp photo galley

Prescott, a fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2016, was thrust into the starter’s role early after starting quarterback Tony Romo suffered a vertebral compression fracture during the preseason and backup QB Kellen Moore broke his right tibia in training camp.

Prescott completed 67.8 percent of his passes during his rookie year for 2,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against only four interceptions. He earned NFL offensive rookie of the year honors.

“I knew there were high expectations for Zeke,” Witten noted. “He is what a running back looks like and what you expect. As he had success, I was watching him. Was he listening to the praises or did he get back to work and continue to improve?

“That’s the thing that Zeke and Dak both deserve credit for. When they had success, they became even more hungry in wanting to achieve an even higher level. For a veteran, that’s what you want to see.”

The Cowboys dropped their opener against the New York Giants then won 11 straight. It was during that streak that Witten sensed something special was happening.

“That’s when I realized that these guys have a chance to put the organization on their shoulders in a lot of ways,” he said. “They did that and I expect them to do that again this year.”

But the season ended with the crushing loss to the Packers. Tony Romo, Witten’s close friend who returned from his injury during the season but accepted the backup role behind Prescott, called it a career shortly thereafter, as did offensive tackle Doug Free.

“That’s never an easy thing to do with the way it happened last year,” Witten said of Romo. “I was proud of him in the way it happened and how he handled it.”

Even when sidelined last season, Romo was still around the team. Witten acknowledged not having him with the team this year in his career will be difficult.

Of Witten’s 1,089 career receptions, 649 were thrown by Romo and 7,287 of his 11,888 receiving yards were compiled on Romo tosses. The pair also hooked up for 37 of Witten’s 69 career touchdowns.

“It will be different not having Tony there, but I think if you stay somewhere for so long you experience the cycle of it and for me I’m experiencing that now with two great teammates, he and Doug Free,” Witten noted. “I appreciate the bond we have. It’s a bond that’s much bigger than the game of football.”

The 35-year-old Witten wasn’t ready to call it a career, however. He signed a four-year contract extension.

“I feel good and it meant a lot that they wanted to see me retire as a Cowboy and play as long as I feel healthy,” he said. “My expectations haven’t changed. I expect to compete for a championship and play the tight end position at a high level.”

Few if any have played the position as well as Witten.

He’s seventh on the all-time receiving list and could crack the top five this season. He’s 27th in all-time receiving yards, just 16 behind Michael Irvin on the Cowboys’ all-time list.

No tight end in NFL history has more catches in a season than his 110 receptions in 2012 or matched his current 219 consecutive games played streak. Witten is also one of just three players to total at least 60 receptions in a season 13 straight years.

“I am humbled to be in the top 10 in receptions and have an opportunity to pass Michael this year,” Witten said. “What an honor. You see the guys on the list that you are passing and they are some of the greatest players to play. For that I’m grateful.”

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