FRISCO, Texas – Almost a year to the day, the Cowboys began their 2018 post-bye stretch with a Monday Night matchup.
Jason Witten wasn't on the field with them. He was in the ESPN booth in a blue suit, calling the action inside AT&T Stadium.
This Monday night at the Meadowlands, he'll be back in his most familiar attire: that iconic No. 82 jersey, trying to help the first-place Cowboys improve to 5-3 against the New York Giants.
"This is what I wanted to do and have an opportunity to play," he said Friday. "It's a good group of guys (at MNF), and I'm amazed at how hard they work and how talented they are. But I'm right where I need to be."
At some point before kickoff, Witten expects to catch up with his former colleagues at Monday Night Football. He says he "enjoyed every moment of working with those guys."
But this final nine-game stretch – a chance to get back in the playoffs and compete for a championship – is exactly what Witten envisioned when he came out of retirement this past March.
The 37-year-old tight end has settled back into a starting role with the team that drafted him 16 years ago. Although he's playing fewer snaps than past seasons (74.6 of the offensive plays so far), Witten has been a safety valve in the passing game for quarterback Dak Prescott and a steadying presence on a young team with emerging leadership.
When Witten returned, he told teammates he "didn't want to limit their abilities to take over this team." But organically, the 11-time Pro Bowler is still someone players turn to during the week and on game day.
"Everything we've talked about Witt since probably he got here – he's just been phenomenal," offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. "He's been great for the offense, I think, keeping the standards high with everyone as far his preparation and work. And then obviously on game day he's great as far as, certainly the player, but also his feel for the game and being able to communicate and talk through things as we go through that process."
Witten didn't plan for the 2017 season to be his last as a player. The MNF opportunity emerged and he felt it was too good to pass up at the time. His May 2018 retirement press conference was emotional – and, as he has acknowledged since, football tugged at him during his time away.
Witten doesn't have any regrets "because I think I'm better because of that experience."
"But I do think there were moments throughout that I thought something inside of me was just like, I should still be playing football, I have more to give," he said."
"Maybe that opportunity forced my hand. And if I could go back I would say, 'Trust your instincts of you'll get other opportunities, you'll have things, but this is what you love to do and you still have ability to give to it.' I think it's easy for me to say it now that I'm able to come back here. But if I wouldn't have had this opportunity, I think it would've been tough for me."
Through seven games, Witten ranks third on the team with 26 catches for 263 yards. He's tied with his younger tight end complement, Blake Jarwin, for the second-most receiving touchdowns (2).
Overall, he's been pleased with the way he's adjusted back to football.
"I knew it was going to be different as far as role, statistically it was going to be hard to measure a lot of that because I wasn't going to catch 110 balls. I knew that coming in," Witten said. "But yeah, I think that I've played well. There are certainly areas that you're constantly trying to redefine and get better at. That doesn't stop.
"It's lived up to everything that I could've ever asked for because I think it's a hell of a group of guys that works hard. And we're in the middle of it right now. It's been some good, some bad, and last week against the Eagles, that's where you want to get to, where you can play like that."