Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten runs the ball during a training camp scrimmage July 28 in Oxnard, Calif. (AP Photo)
OXNARD, Calif. — Football can be a complex game. It demands split-second analysis of multiple moving parts, memorization of voluminous playbooks and attention to the finest details.
But the coaching advice for Dallas Cowboys rookie tight end Gavin Escobar is as basic as it gets. If at any point Escobar can’t figure something out about his new job, all he has to do is ask himself a single question:
What would Jason do?
Jason, of course, is Jason Witten, the Cowboys’ eight-time Pro Bowl tight end and the leading receiver in franchise history. Witten, entering his 11th season, has two tasks this summer: continue to play tight end at an elite level and serve as a mentor for the player who one day might succeed him.
Witten isn’t contractually obligated to tutor Escobar and the other young tight ends in Cowboys camp. The veteran simply considers it his responsibility.
“I want to help him as much as I can,” Witten said of Escobar after a recent practice. “My job is to make him a better player and feel comfortable out there.”
Escobar is thrilled to be on the receiving end of Witten’s wisdom. Asked what he’d learned from Witten so far, the second-round pick out San Diego State gushed: “Oh, man. Pretty much everything.”
Escobar tries not to pepper Witten with a constant stream of questions. Rather, the rookie watches Witten’s every move and tries to do what Witten does.
“It’s one thing to be told where to put your hands,” Escobar said. “But when you can actually see where to put your hands …”
Escobar is learning about hand placement, footwork and angles from one of the NFL’s craftiest pass catchers. He’s also learning what it means to be a pro. The highlights happen Sunday, but the real work is done Monday through Saturday.
“Right off the bat I noticed how hard he practiced,” Escobar said. “He practiced like he isn’t an eight-time Pro Bowler (but) like he’s got a chip on his shoulder. I’m trying to emulate that. It’s tough. I don’t know how he does it day in and day out for so long.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has been around Witten for more than half of the tight end’s pro career. Garrett will tell you that’s just how Jason Witten is.
Garrett gave several older players a “veteran rest day” during the first full week of Cowboys training camp. Witten wouldn’t have it. After all, he played in a game – and 15 more after that – 3½ weeks after suffering a lacerated spleen.
The injury occurred last Aug. 13. The Cowboys opened their season Sept. 5 against the New York Giants. Witten wasn’t supposed to play. Yet he participated in 53 of 68 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Witten went on to play more snaps last season — 1,112 — than any tight end in the league.
“He was bound and determined to play in that game,” Garrett said. “What he did in that game was remarkable. What he did after that game, to me, was even more remarkable. He wasn’t himself, at all, in the early part of the season for obvious reasons.
“And then for him to go on and maybe have the best year of his career, the most productive in terms of receptions, just the kind of player he was for us, it was really amazing. It has a lot to do with his ability, more to do with the kind of person he is.”
Witten’s credibility as a leader is unassailable. Garrett believes it’s an innate trait in Witten’s case, that he was the type of kid who’d organize games on the playground. Witten says he just loves football. But there’s more to it than that.
“He has that way about him,” Garrett said. “He’s a guy that people are drawn to in general, and then you add the fact that he’s such a good football player.”
Those qualities, Garrett said, make Witten “an easy guy to follow.” They make him the ideal role model for a rookie.
Witten is a willing mentor for a couple of reasons.
One is that Escobar isn’t a threat to take his job. The Cowboys frequently will deploy two tight ends this season, as they did often during practice last week. Dallas does not have a fullback on its roster.
Another is that Escobar is a willing pupil.
“He’s doing all the right things,” Witten said. “I think that’s the first step — that he wants to do it and he’s asking the right questions.
“Obviously, he’s going to have a role on this team. He needs to learn as quickly as he can.”
With second-year pro James Hanna out because of a hamstring injury, Escobar took a ton of reps with the first team at the “F” position. He’d often go in motion or line up on the perimeter, his 6-foot-6, 249-pound frame providing an inviting target for quarterback Tony Romo.
Romo had to correct Escobar one time when he motioned the wrong way, but mistakes like that are bound to happen. Escobar said he feels much more comfortable with the playbook after struggling with it at times in spring.
Should any further questions arise, Escobar knows where to find the answers.
“If you’re a tight end coming into our situation and you just keep your mouth shut, watch, listen and learn, you can become a better player,” Garrett said. “Escobar’s the right kind of kid. He’s working hard, he’s trying to learn. To have Wit be the example for him, I think it will be really, really beneficial for him throughout his career. He’ll look back on it as a real blessing.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services