IRVING, Texas – Two of the best tight ends in history will square off Sunday in Qualcomm Stadium – you might have heard of them.
It's one of the glaring storylines from this weekend's Cowboys-Chargers matchup, but two names as big as Jason Witten and Antonio Gates are simply too big to ignore.
"They're fantastic players. They're certainly the best tight ends, or among the best tight ends, of their generations of players," said Cowboys coach Jason Witten. "Like you said, they're among the best of all time and I think both guys are Hall of Fame players."
The numbers back that up.
Both big men entered the league in 2003, and they have been abusing overmatched defenses ever since. Witten, who last year set the NFL record for receptions by a tight end in a season with 110, boasts 822 receptions for 9,097 yards and 46 touchdowns.
"He's a guy that can play on the line of scrimmage, he can open up and win down the field, he can win as a possession receiver," Garrett said. "He's a really, really good football player."
Gates, who helped start the modern trend of athletic tight ends that play out wide, broke onto the scene with 25 touchdowns in his first three seasons. For his career, he has compiled 657 receptions for 8,549 yards and an incredible 84 touchdowns.
"Gates is a guy who has just been such a mismatch player all throughout his career. He's just a very difficult guy to cover," Garrett said. "Teams have tried to cover him a lot of different ways for a long time – they play zone, they play man, they put a safety on him, they put a linebacker on him, and nothing seems to be very effective in stopping him."
Witten said the pair's success has generated a long, respectful relationship in the last decade. Both tight ends are eight-time Pro Bowlers, and, playing in different conferences, they have made seven of those Pro Bowl trips together, from 2004-10.
"Over the years you compete with each other, but you form a bond and relationship of always picking each other's brains," Witten said. "So, I've got a lot of respect for him and what he's been able to do over the years – the last couple of years, how he fought through the injuries and came back, and it looks like he's playing well right now."
Indeed, while Witten overcame a spleen laceration to post his 110-catch, 1,039-yard season, Gates' struggles with foot problems limited him to 49 catches for 538 yards in 2012. He's well on his way to topping that production this year, however, with 15 catches for 228 yards through three games.
"At the end of the day it's all about body and leverage," Witten said. "I think he understands, just like I do, that those are the matchups you want to create – whether it's on a linebacker or a safety – of how do you use that leverage, and your quarterbacks have confidence in you. I think Phillip has a lot of confidence in him, quite like Tony and I."
That raises yet another similarity between the two legends – chemistry. Gates broke into the NFL one year before the Chargers drafted Phillip Rivers, while Witten and Tony Romo joined the Cowboys together in 2003.
In that time span, Witten has brought in 25 of his 46 career touchdown catches from Romo. Gates has caught an impressive 57 of his 84 scores from Rivers – the only quarterback to throw Gates a touchdown since Drew Brees left San Diego in 2005.
"We have that chemistry from lots of dialogue, obviously, and conversation about routes and things. We also have that unspoken chemistry that you have – I have a feel for him, when he's coming out of a cut, when he's doing this or what he sees," Rivers said. "And he just knows when to speed up routes. He just has that sense of timing and things like that, so it's just been a real pleasure to play with him all these years."
As if the duo needed any more similarities, they even draw the same praise.
"I think San Diego is pretty similar, with Rivers and Gates – you play with each other long enough and your minds think alike," Romo said. "You just kind of understand when they're going to come out of their break, their timing and their body language that someone else might see and not know what to do, but we know."