IRVING, Texas –
Witten passed Michael Irvin in career receptions midway through the year and went on to catch 110 passes, setting the NFL record for receptions by a tight end in a single season by topping Tony Gonzalez’s record of 102 catches.
Yet his most memorable moment from the 2012 season has nothing to do with either record.
“For me, looking back at last season, that’s probably what I’m most proud of, not so much the catches and the year, but kind of overcoming the way it first started,” Witten said.
A year that ended in typical mesmerizing fashion for Witten, who recorded at least seven catches in 11 games, included a start to the season marred by dropped passes and poor performances.
It wasn’t from a lack of effort that Witten failed to record a five-catch game through the first three weeks of the season.
One of Witten’s prouder moments of the year was being able to suit up for the opener against the Giants when most people thought it would be impossible, just a few weeks after the tight end lacerated his spleen in the preseason opener. He defied the odds by playing, though he’ll admit he didn’t look his usual self in that game, catching two passes for 10 yards.
He still didn’t look himself the next couple weeks, either, catching just six passes on 18 combined targets in Week 2 and Week 3.
“It was a tough stretch, that’s for sure,” Witten said. “Coming off the injury, then obviously had some big drops in the early games, but I think everything that you preach to the young players you have to actually live yourself and stay the course. Coach (Jason) Garrett talks about the process all the time. That’s what really mental toughness is all about.”
Witten said he hates to make excuses and still claims the injury to his spleen wasn’t completely to blame for his uncharacteristic play early on, but after returning early from the injury, it would make sense that it would take some time to get acclimated to the physicality.
“I think it was not so much the injury as the three weeks of missing practice and really kind of being on bed rest,” he said. “But I made the decision to get back out there, and I owed it to my teammates to be out there and to perform well. I think that was the toughest part about it, was the feeling of letting other people who are counting on me down. I believe in team. This is a humbling game, but you’ve got to be on it and be ready to go.”
After the initial struggles and with his health regained, he demonstrated just how ready to go he was the rest of the year.
The turnaround came quick. In a game remembered more for the Cowboys’ offensive struggles in a rout by the Bears, Witten compiled 13 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown.
That’s the moment he said everything clicked.
“We lost, and it was a tough loss, but had 13 passes thrown to me, 13 catches, so I kind of felt like this is what we’re used to,” Witten said. “Get open, find the zone, find the man to man beater. After that game, I kind of felt like, OK, we’re getting back into tune of what everybody expects of me.”
From then on, it was vintage Witten. He recorded five receptions or more in 12 of the final 13 games of the season, becoming the Cowboys’ all-time receptions leader in the process and achieving a feat no other tight end has ever accomplished with his single-season receptions mark.
“It’s been obviously very humbling to receive some of those honors,” he said. “Michael Irvin, there’s only one time you get that opportunity to pass such a great player. So many records that he holds still, and to pass him, just to be mentioned with Michael Irvin is an honor, definitely humbling.”
Witten said at some point when his career’s finished, he’ll probably look back and realize the magnitude of his accomplishments in 2012. At this moment, though, his thoughts focus solely on trying to win his first championship.
When he looks back to last season, his ability to fight through one of his roughest spurts in the NFL is what he remembers most.
“For me to kind of overcome that and come back around and for them to believe in me and for Tony (Romo) to keep coming back to me and at the end of the year to have 110 catches, it kind of came full circle for me and something I hope that we can build on moving into this year,” he said.