OXNARD, Calif. – Tight ends coach Wes Phillips wasn't sure how to approach it.
While this might be his first season in his new role, Phillips is no stranger to the coaching staff as he enters his seventh year with the club. And he's heard more about the game of football from the breakfast table, listening to his dad, Wade Phillips, and his grandfather, Bum.
So when Phillips prepared the tape of last year's preseason game with the Raiders, he proceeded with caution when it came to a certain catch over the middle made by Jason Witten. It just so happened to be the one that Witten got hit awkwardly in the midsection, causing a lacerated spleen injury that instantly put his season in jeopardy.
As it turned out, Witten only missed the remaining of training camp and he found a way to make it back for the 2012 season opener against the Giants. He wasn't himself for the first three or four games of the year, but obviously found his groove in time to have not only a Witten-like campaign, but even better than that. He set the NFL's single-season record for catches by a tight end with 110 and returned to the Pro Bowl for an eighth time.
But even though it turned out to be a storybook season for Witten individually, the play itself was thought about again as the Cowboys return to the scene Friday night for another preseason game with the Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
"Wes said, 'hey are you superstitious or any of that stuff?'" Witten said of his tight ends coach. "He said we're going to be watching film. It took me a second to catch on and I was like, 'oh, the play.' He went fast on it. We watched it. But there wasn't much rewind to it."
However, Phillips said he did dwell on another catch by Witten, the one he made on the next series after the injury had already occurred.
"As they watched it, we didn't dwell on it," Phillips said. "He actually made a catch after that. I pointed out to the other guys: This is after the spleen was lacerated. I showed the young guys what this guy is about."
And there're a lot of things to describe Witten and what he is about. But head coach Jason Garrett said he will never describe Witten in any other way than starting off with the toughness he showed to get back and play that first game against the Giants last year, a month after the spleen injury.
Because at first, Garrett admitted he wasn't sure if Witten would be able to play at all, much less in the opener.
"I think there were a lot of emotions that we all had," Garrett said. "Whenever you're talking about an injury to an internal organ I think you're certainly very concerned. The thoughts about the guy as a football player and how quickly he's going to get back really go out the window. You start thinking about his wife, his kids, all of that. We had all of those discussions."
But it didn't take long for Garrett and the Cowboys to realize what Witten's plans were.
"We stood right outside that cafeteria about three minutes after he heard the news about what it actually was, and he said, 'I'm playing in that Giants game,'" Garrett recalled. "He's an amazing guy. Forget 110 catches, forget eight-time Pro Bowls, forget all that stuff. When you tell the Witten story, I start with that one because I think he showed what he's all about and what he's been doing for a long time in this league. I think it's a great example for the rest of our football team and really for the rest of humanity in the whole NFL. That's how you do it. He's really a tough guy, an amazing guy and we're lucky to have him."
Witten said the physical pain was tough to handle, but nothing compared to missing practice time and the chance to be on the field with his teammates.
"The toughest part was literally laying in that room in this hotel and hearing the horn go off and thinking practice is starting again and I can't even get out of bed," Witten said. "(And) the uncertainly of not knowing and no one was able to tell me, 'hey here's the date and here's what it could be.' Early on I was optimistic, but as we continued to go, I thought this might be a long stretch here. Not just the first game, but maybe the first three or four games."
But Witten stuck to his goal of playing in the first game and although he wasn't much of a factor against the Giants, he was certainly out there, increasing his streak of games played to 156, dating back to his rookie season when he missed one game with a fractured jaw, the only time in his career he's sat out.
In fact, Witten said missing practices is just as hard and cites that as the biggest reason he struggled early in the season.
"The poor play wasn't a result of the injury but it was a result of not practicing," Witten said. "You feel like you're letting down your team. It's not a sense of entitlement or being a tough guy. To say it was emotional, yeah, it was a little bit. I felt like I was obligated to do that. It's something I'm proud of to this day, even though it was a tough stretch for me."