Jason Witten’s second and presumably final retirement hit the news wire midday Wednesday. I didn’t find out for a good 10 hours. No one texted me, emailed me, or prompted me on Twitter for some Witten talk or reaction. I guess part of this speaks to how ordinary Witten’s final two years were, but it also strikes me that Witten was probably underappreciated for a good bit of his career.
And I feel a little melancholy about that.
Some NFL and fantasy fans of a certain age will mostly remember the end of Witten’s career and what happened the last few years — the Dad runner jokes, the catch-and-fall comments, his awkward and brief appointment on Monday Night Football. If you didn’t see the full arc of Witten’s career, you missed something special, even if his story was mostly about seamless production and reliability, as opposed to flash and sparkle.
Since the merger, there have been only 60 tight end seasons of 940 or more receiving yards. Witten bagged seven of those. Witten’s 110 catches in 2012 are second-most among tight ends (Zach Ertz got to 116 in 2018). Witten was a Top 5 fantasy tight end five times (twice at the top spot), and inside the TE1 cutline (Top 12) in 13 different seasons. He didn’t produce much in his rookie year of 2003, and he hardly produced in his final year, 2020. If you rostered Witten in any of his 15 years in-between, you got your money’s worth.
Only four players in NFL history have games with 18 or more catches on their resume (Brandon Marshall did it twice). Witten’s the only tight end on that list, throwing 18 grabs for 167 yards at the Giants back in 2012.
Witten was twice All-Pro and 11 times a Pro Bowler. The resume — filled with an impressive peak along with the notable consistency — speaks for itself. But when I think back to what was remarkable about Witten, I come back to a simple but astounding fact.
Witten busted his jaw in his rookie year. Surgery was required, and he needed the jaw wired shut. Nasty stuff, had to eat through a straw, that type of thing. Nonetheless, Witten missed only one game — inspiring praise from his head coach, Bill Parcells. (And the old-school Parcells was the type of coach who might hand out three compliments in a year.)
Witten never missed another game for his 17-year career. His career schedule called for 272 regular-season games; he suited up for 271 on them. All this at a collision position, a physically-demanding job that requires multiple body crashes on every Sunday. When we think durability in sports, we gush over legends like Cal Ripken or Brett Favre. Witten belongs in that conversation, somewhere.
I’ve learned over the fantasy years to never make assumptions at tight end. But I tip my cap to Jason Witten, a reminder that every good rule has notable exceptions.