Let's start with the obvious: Jason Witten had one heck of a season for the Cowboys: 1,039 yards, the second-most of his career, and 110 catches, the most for any tight end ever. And he did it all after suffering a lacerated spleen in the preseason. In terms of Jason Garrett's "right kind of guys," Witten is the prototype.
When we analyze players, though, we need to be careful about placing too much emphasis on bulk stats. Tony Romo threw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2012, beating his previous career-high by almost 500 yards. The Cowboys went 8-8 and Romo tossed 19 interceptions, however, so it's easy see that the quarterback didn't necessarily have the best year of his career, despite the massive output.
In regards to tight ends, however, it's much more difficult to determine to what degree a player's bulk stats represent their true value. First of all, tight ends are leaned on heavily in the running game, and grading their blocking performance can be a challenge, even if you intensely monitor every play. There's a reason we use statistics. You can watch every one of DeMarco Murray's 2012 carries and have no idea whether he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (YPC) or 4.8, and there's a massive difference between the two.
One aspect of each play that I track is which blockers are at the point-of-attack on each running play, i.e. the players (usually three) required to make the "key" blocks for a running play to succeed. In the three seasons prior to 2012, the Cowboys were outstanding when running behind Witten, totaling 4.93 YPC. With Witten at the point in 2012, however, the Cowboys managed only 4.3 YPC. Some of the decline may very well be due to factors outside of Witten's control – the struggles of the offensive tackles, DeMarco Murray's injury, and so on – but it's still concerning to see such a large drop.
In the passing game, there's evidence that Witten's 2012 numbers aren't quite as impressive as they first appear. The biggest indication is Witten's usage in the passing game; the tight end ran 587 routes in 2012, by far the most of his career. Much of the increase was due to game situations. With the 'Boys down often, Witten was counted on as a receiver more than ever.
Witten's increase in pass snaps led to more routes because the tight end was also utilized as a blocker less frequently than in past seasons. Witten was used in pass protection on only 11.7 percent of his pass snaps. The rate has hovered around twice that in past seasons.
As you'd expect, Witten saw a whole lot of Romo's throws come his way – 150 to be exact, eight more than his previous career high. Most of those passes were on underneath routes. Actually, the average length of passes to Witten was only 7.96 yards and just 4 percent of his targets came 20-plus yards downfield. We're getting closer to explaining why Witten was able to haul in so many passes.
Despite the increased targets, Witten's efficiency wasn't better than in past seasons. Actually, it was worse. One of the best stats we can use to determine how often a receiver gets open and makes plays is the number of yards they gain per pass route they run. It's superior to yards-per-catch or even yards-per-target because it punishes receivers for failing to get open. In analyzing Witten's past yards-per-route, there's an obvious trend.
Witten's efficiency has decreased every year since 2008. The fact that Witten saw his worst efficiency in a half-decade in a season in which he caught 110 passes is pretty alarming. There's almost zero chance that the tight end will catch 110 passes again in 2013, yet it's probable that the trend we see above, a decline in yards-per-route, is on the way.
None of this is meant to be a shot at Witten. Make no mistake about it: Witten is still one of the league's premiere tight ends. He's someone you want to have on your team, someone you want to have fighting with you when the chips are down. He makes everyone around him better.
But he isn't going to be around forever. For the Dallas Cowboys, the future of the tight end position is today.