IRVING, Texas – When the season began, questions regarding how much longer tight end Jason Witten could last in the NFL occurred much more frequently than which records he would break.
Now, with just six catches needed over the next two games to set the all-time record for receptions in a season by a tight end, that couldn't be further from the case.
"There're a lot of good tight ends out there, and to be able to be even thinking about passing that record that's stood the course for almost 10 years by the greatest tight end that's ever played, to break that, no question it's special," Witten said.
The record for most catches by a tight end in a single season belongs to veteran Tony Gonzalez, who set the mark with 102 receptions in 2004. Witten's already set his career-high in a season with 97 catches, a feat even he didn't think would be possible after an uncharacteristically poor start to the year.
More drops come to mind than catches when looking back at the start of Witten's season. He hauled in just eight catches on 21 targets in his first three games after lacerating his spleen.
"I hate to put it on that," Witten said of the injury affecting his play. "I still think I should have caught those balls, and it had nothing to do with that."
He may blame his drops on a lack of focus rather than his spleen, but even Witten will admit it took him a few weeks to feel completely better and get the same range of motion after returning early from the injury he sustained in the preseason.
Witten caught only two passes in two of his first three games. He returned to his normal self in Week 4, catching 13 passes against the Bears, and he's caught at least four passes in every game since Week 3.
"That's the way the season goes," Witten said. "Just staying ready and not allowing two games to turn into seven games and just kind of be able to put that mental block away and move forward, that's probably what I'm most proud of throughout this season."
The season that started so dreadfully quickly became the best of his career. He already passed Michael Irvin for the most receptions in his career earlier this year, and Witten now leads the Hall of Fame receiver by 43 receptions atop the team leaderboard.
The new record he's approaching might be even more special, considering it's entirely focused on this season alone, when questions about Witten's age and health arose early on.
"You hear that, and you don't allow that to affect what you do," Witten said. "John Garrett was great, the position coach, of 'You're running great routes. Everyone's talking about this Seattle secondary. You get by them four times, you just didn't catch the ball.' You do take pride in that and keeping your confidence up and knowing I'm going to work even harder now to bounce back from it."
His teammates had no doubt he'd do just that.
"I've known Jason when I first got here, and he's the same guy," said guard Mackenzy Bernadeau. "He's just striving to be great, wants to be the best player on the field. I don't see him doing anything extra crazy just to break records or what not. He's just a guy that wants to play and wants to win. I'm sure if you asked him, it's not about the records; it's about winning the games. That's the type of player Jason is."
Witten takes pride in his ability to block just as much as his ability to catch passes. Yet in a league dominated by receiving tight ends like the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and the Saints' Jimmy Graham, who Witten will play against this week, it's Witten who leads the group. Gonzalez, who's second among tight ends with 87 catches this year, trails Witten by 10.
"It kind of comes full circle 10 years later," Witten said. "I'm sure early in the year there were questions of what was going to happen."
Even as he dropped passes early in the season, Witten never doubted his ability. Now the slow start is a thing of the past, while another broken record seems inevitable in the near future.
"The bar always gets higher and higher and higher," Witten said. "I've never thought, 'Well, I'm about to taper off here, let's see if I can hang on.' It's always gotten higher every year. Going into this year, that's what it was. With your coaching staff, with your teammates, it's to be your best. So you do take pride in that and to think I can have that type of year, especially the way it started, to be able to block that, it's one thing to tell young guys to do it, but it's another when you have to do it yourself."