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Spagnola: That Hand Already In The Dirt


FRISCO, Texas – This is so Jason Witten.

Time is around 11 a.m., Thursday. This is the fourth consecutive day Witten has been spotted out here at The Star, ever since announcing his comeback to the Dallas Cowboys and onto the field again after the briefest retirement since Ed "Too Tall" Jones took a one-year hiatus from the Cowboys during the 1979 season to try his hand(s) at professional boxing.

Too Tall went 3-0 as a 6-foot 9-inch heavyweight, then came back to the Cowboys in 1980 to play 10 more seasons, totaling a franchise record-tying 15 overall.

Witten spent his year away talking, a much more humane endeavor than that of Too Tall's pugilistic pursuit. Getting paid to talk is like stealing money. Believe me, I know.

Not sure "Witt" hated the analyst job on ESPN's Monday Night Football broadcast or that he detested the criticism he received. Come on, this is a tough guy, if you remember. Played with a busted-up jaw. Didn't let a lost helmet stop him from more yards after the catch. Damaged spleen? What's the big deal, searching for a doctor who said, hey, big guy, you have my permission to play, as if this was some sort of hangnail, not a damaged organ.

He just plain missed the game of football. The guys. The physical competition. Just being here.

Like Thursday morning. There 82 was, and by the way, most surely the last guy to ever wear 82 in club history. Just out there on the grass practice field. The lone person. In his workout gear. For God's sakes, Witt, it's March 7. Guys are in the Bahamas. Still.

Not Witten. He's trying to make up for lost time. And in his mind, guarantee you, he didn't sign a brother-in-law $2 million base-salary deal, stuffed with another $3 million in incentives. He knows he's got to earn it, prove he's worthy of playing a franchise-record 16th season. Prove not only to the coaches, but to the young bucks soon to be out there again with him.

You know, in this league they don't just rent out locker space to you. Doesn't even matter if your bigger-than-life, helmetless-head picture looms on high as the guys make their way out to Ford Center field.

Gosh, can't wait for the first time we hear Ezekiel Elliott jack with Witten, yelling out, "There's ol' man Witt again," causing the "old man" to smile, yet knowing deep down he's burning to say, I'll show you, dude.

So there is Witten, out there Thursday morning on the field in his three-point stance, lunging off the imaginary line of scrimmage. Practicing his get-off. Just as we've seen so many times before, like in training camp, again out there by himself. Acting as if he's come off the snap to block. Over and over again. Until he slowly walks back into the weight room.

Like, who does this stuff? Guarantee you the sight warms the cockles of Jason Garrett's heart when looking out onto the field from his window-lined office. Quite a contrast from David Irving, huh?

Now, this is just me, but don't think the Cowboys are looking at Witten as some sort of offensive savior. That just because he's back all is right, that he will take over the tight end positon and do as he did in what we thought was his final season in 2017, playing 98.3 percent of the offensive snaps.

He's likely here to accentuate a position void of any sort of experience in 2018, a bad combination when coupled with this idea that the Cowboys could function without a No. 1 receiver. That didn't work out so swell.

Hence, Amari Cooper.

But here is what gets lost, too, in that first-half season shuffle, er struggle: Four tight ends to break camp, only Geoff Swaim had any NFL experience, and only enough to head into the season with all of nine catches. Nine now. And that nine is nine more than the other three tight ends combined – rookie fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz, former 2017 rookie free agent Blake Jarwin (one career game) and second-year tight end Rico Gathers (zero career games with no practice while on injured reserve during the 2017 season).

And then in Game 10, Swaim suffers a season-ending broken wrist in need of surgery, an unfortunate, uh, break since he becomes an unrestricted free agent come March 13.

But in those final eight games, including the two playoff outings, Jarwin broke out, catching 28 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Get this, a 16-game pace of 56 catches for 594 yards and six touchdowns as an extremely raw tight end. In what we thought was his final season of 2017, Witten caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns.

Even Schultz, after struggling during training camp, turning into a game-day inactive in five of the first six games, started to come on, starting the final eight games (playoffs included). He would catch 10 passes for 103 yards over that span. More importantly, his blocking as an all-round tight end improved greatly.

Now, not sure what happens with Swaim in free agency, finally recovered from his surgery to implant pins and screws to fix his broken bones.

But adding Witten to the likes of Schultz and Jarwin diminishes any tight-end desperation going into the draft. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, though, insists the current state would not cause the Cowboys to ignore drafting another tight end, even with their first pick, a second-rounder, coming 58th overall.

Let's remember back 16 years when Witten was a rookie, not quite yet a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He started just seven of the 15 games he played during that 2003 season, catching 35 passes for 347 yards and one touchdown. Though maybe an asterisk is needed on that since Quincy Carter was the starting quarterback and Bill Parcells protected that offense to the point fullback Richie Anderson ended up leading the team in receptions with 69.

The Cowboys just might have something in these two young guys. And enough so they don't have to wear out Witten, who turns 37 on May 6. Why, take some blocking responsibility away from him, though his presence turns the two-tight formation into more of a threat in the passing game. So does his presence inside the red zone, along with goal-to-go situations.

Says Jones of Witten's return, "It won't do anything but accentuate what the tight end, what Witten's positon can do, on our team. It will do that. It won't deter us in anyway in using our first pick for a tight end if we have the opportunity to. And I don't look at Witten as a progress stopper.

"I think, hopefully, when you look at how we can spread the ball around … I think Witten will have his place. I think he certainly has his place in what we do in our blocking and protection and running."

But again, after being away from the game for this past season, Witten knows he has to prove he still belongs. That he's capable. That teams still must respect his presence on the field.

And knowing Witt, he can't wait.

Can't wait to get his hand back in the dirt.

Just as it already was Thursday morning.