FRISCO, Texas – Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones fully supported Jason Witten's retirement last May, but he isn't surprised that the ironman tight end is returning for a 16th NFL season with the team that drafted him in 2003.
"I always knew that he was interested in playing. I've always known that," Jones said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "He wasn't totally, totally and completely convicted about never playing again.
"That was bothersome to him. Both he and (wife) Michelle both as a family were really struggling with that decision to leave the game as a player forever."
In his retirement speech last May, Witten said, "No man knows when his time has come to walk away, and I'm no different." Yet he fully dedicated himself to a transition into television as ESPN's lead Monday Night Football analyst.
Clearly, the game still tugged at him. Three weeks ago at his Collegiate Man of the Year award ceremony – ironically, the banquet was held at The Star in Frisco – Witten told reporters he enjoyed learning the TV side but "missed the heck out of playing" last year.
Witten has acknowledged that coaching on some level is a future possibility. Last spring, as Witten debated retirement, Jones said he assured the franchise's all-time receptions leader that a broadcasting career wouldn't preclude him from coaching one day.
That time isn't now. Witten will wear a Cowboys helmet for a record 16th season. In a statement announcing his return for 2019, he said, "The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong. This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it."
The Cowboys, too, are comfortable working him back into the offense with a young group of tight ends.
Speaking at the Combine last week, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett did not speculate on a snap count for Witten, who turns 37 in May. Jones said Witten's return won't rule out tight end as a draft option for Dallas, but there's no question the 11-time Pro Bowler "will have his place" on offense.
"He certainly has got his place in what we do in our blocking and protection and running," Jones said. "While we had functioning blocking and functioning execution with our tight ends, we still weren't what we were when Jason was there the year before, and that's not to criticize anybody. It's just that we weren't. And he will elevate us there.
"He's well worth the roster spot. He's well worth the time on the field to improve us."