INDIANAPOLIS – Jason Garrett has had more time to process the news than most, so it was easy to understand his coy smile.
The Cowboys' head coach spoke to reporters just 24 hours earlier at the NFL Scouting Combine, but there had been no inkling about this – the biggest shock in a year that's been full of them.
Jason Witten caught the football world completely off guard when he announced Thursday that he had signed a one-year deal to return to the Cowboys' roster, stepping down from his role as the lead analyst on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" in the process.
As big as the shock was from the outside, though, Garrett's smile gave the game away. Asked about Witten's return, his longtime head coach confirmed it had been a topic of conversation for the last few weeks before the perennial Pro Bowler eventually made it official.
"It was a great opportunity he had at ESPN to go be the lead analyst on 'Monday Night Football,' but I think playing football still tugged at his heart," Garrett said. "I think he felt like there was still some meat on the bone, things he wanted to accomplish. And I just think he loves it and wants to be in this environment."
Witten's return comes 10 months after his retirement in April of last year. The 2019 season will mark his 16th with the club, which will set a franchise record that he currently shares with Mark Tuinei and Ed "Too Tall" Jones.
To that point, there's no denying that Witten will turn 37 on May 6. During the course of their conversations, Garrett said the biggest talking point between the two was Witten's physical readiness to play.
"He knows his body more than anybody else," Garrett said. "He knows the demands of the game more than anybody else to make an honest assessment of where he was physically. He was able to do that over the last few weeks."
With that settled, Witten will rejoin a tight end depth chart that has been the subject of much scrutiny since the season ended. Geoff Swaim is slated for free agency, and the Cowboys have two promising – but unproven – young tight ends in Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz.
Garrett said bringing such a decorated veteran – a future Pro Football Hall of Famer – back into the tight end room can only help to improve the unit.
"I think the biggest thing you try to create on your team is competition," he said. "It's not really about being a progress stopper. It's about trying to play the best guys."
The specifics of Witten's role in the offense aren't clear yet, but it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys balance his role with their younger options. In 15 years, Witten famously missed just one game and was a constant presence in the Cowboys' huddle. He played 98 percent of the offensive snaps during his final season with the team.
Garrett wasn't ready to discuss snap counts, but he didn't lack for confidence that the veteran will have a role to play.
"We're not going to get into those kinds of conversations," he said. "But he was a great football player for us for a long time, played at a very high level. So I have a lot of confidence in him to be able to come back and contribute to our team."
That's where it sits for now. Jason Witten was gone, and now he's back. And to hear it from his longtime coach, he hasn't lost a step.
"There's no doubt in his mind that he can still play, and there's no doubt in my mind he can still play," Garrett said. "I'm excited to have him back."