OXNARD, Calif. –The philosophy is "next man up," but this cannot be so simple.
The Cowboys do like John Phillips, who will replace Jason Witten as the starting tight end until the Pro Bowl fixture can return from his spleen injury. But John Phillips is not Jason Witten. He just isn't.
Though the Cowboys are confident Phillips can capably fill the role of No. 2 tight end, vacated by Martellus Bennett, they'll have to adjust now that he's a starter. The play-calling probably won't change much, as Phillips has approximately the same size and speed qualifications as Witten, but quarterback Tony Romo will be affected. It's no secret that Witten is his favorite target, having led the team in receptions each of the last five seasons.
"You can't replace a guy like Jason Witten," Phillips said. "He's a leader of this team, a leader of this offense. Not a guy you can replace. I'm not trying to replace him. He'll be able to lead from the sidelines, be able to help us out in the film room and stuff, but I'm sure he'll get his body right and do the things that he needs to do to get back and play on this team."
While the injury is not expected to linger deep into the fall, it's entirely possible Witten could be unavailable for the season opener on Sept. 5, now only 20 days away. Until then, every tight end on the roster slides up a notch.
Actually, rookie sixth-round pick James Hanna will continue to work as the No. 2 guy. He had filled in for Phillips for over a week while the three-year veteran rested a sprained ankle, only returning to practice on Wednesday. Hanna started the preseason opener, lining up alongside Witten in the "12 personnel" package. Hanna caught two passes for 15 yards in the game.
"He played a lot of snaps in this game and did some positive things," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He made some mistakes, like everybody does, but I thought he got more and more comfortable as the game wore on. He made some plays on special teams that showed up, he was a competitive blocker and then he made a couple of plays in the passing game as well. So (he was) real comfortable out there. He just needs to play more, like all the young guys do, but I thought it was a good start for him."
If Witten is sidelined for the opener at New York, it increases the odds of undrafted rookie Andrew Szczerba making the squad. Szczerba had one catch for 20 yards at Oakland. The team added another tight end to the roster on Wednesday, Harry Flaherty.
Missing Witten in preseason games is not a crisis, and in looking for a silver lining, the Cowboys will point to the extra reps and opportunity for the Cowboys' younger tight ends. But the possibility of being without him against the Giants makes the proposition of winning the NFL Kickoff game even more difficult.
Should Witten miss the game, it'll be up to the Cowboys' offensive coaches to put Phillips and the other tight ends in the best position to succeed.
"It's an injury that we've got to deal with," tight ends coach and passing game coordinator John Garrett said. "John Phillips is ready like he's proven since he's been here. Confidence comes from demonstrated performance, and he's demonstrated every time that he's been in there that he has really played well. If you go back when he had to play against the Saints, when they were undefeated (in 2009), our second tight end was out and he went in and he did a great job and we won the game. Two years ago when our second tight end was out and he had to play, he did great, and everybody said who's this John Phillips?
"We didn't think he could do this, or he could do that, and he just goes out and proves to everybody that he's capable."