That’s a crazy proposition; I know. But let he who has eyes read this article, and let he who has a few neurons evaluate what I’m writing.
Jason Witten has been Tony Romo’s security blanket ever since the 2007 season. Since that time, Jason Witten has averaged 88 catches per year. If you’re subject to mediot manipulation, then it’s because Tony Romo and Jason Witten are best friends. If you follow football, then you’ll remember Romo told Mickey Spagnola in an in-game interview during the Chargers game a week ago, the first game of any type Witten had missed since the 2003 season, that Romo can always count on Witten being single-covered after things don’t develop down field. Witten’s numbers when Jon Kitna was the quarterback support this, as do Witten’s 2004 and 2005 Pro Bowl selections — a full two seasons before Tony Romo ever took a significant snap.
But all right: Witten is good only because Romo is his best friend. The mediots told me so.
Another area Jason Witten is very good at is blocking. He’s one of the best tight ends in the game, not only for his receiving prowess, but also for his blocking skills. With Witten, you can always count on a block and then a release into the flats, or a good seal on a run to the outside.
So going into New York without Witten’s receiving and his blocking seems like a scary scenario, and I don’t blame you. However, things aren’t as trepidatious as they may seem.
When it comes to blocking, John Phillips is serviceable enough to substitute for Jason Witten at the tight end position. Furthermore, we’ve got Lawrence Vickers now. We have one of the best fullbacks in pro football. No longer do we need to rely on single back sets to run the ball; we can continue to use the I-formation and similar sets to run the football. Even in passing situations, Vickers is already a good enough blocker and won’t pull a Chris Gronkowski on Romo.
We’ve got the blocking aspect amongst our skill positions taken care of. Sure, we would be elite in that area if we had Witten, but we’ll be just fine without him.
In the aspects of receiving, I would submit again John Phillips’ services. He was hooking up with Romo pretty well in practice at Cowboys Stadium, presuming that solitary open practice is representative of all other practices and what we can expect in games. I’m not sure Phillips will find those soft spots in the zone the same way Witten did, but he would be reliable enough for a check down or maybe even a wide receiver screen, which he worked on in practice Thursday.
Who else I saw practicing the tight end screen was James Hanna. For all of the scuttlebutt that went around in mini-camps about how James Hanna had trouble holding onto the football, he’s been consistently catching the football in practices and in preseason games. Coming from Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners program, where passing the football is primary, you would expect one of their tight end products to be proficient in this area.
Another Oklahoma Sooner product we can count on in the passing game is Demarco Murray. Like Phillips, he will be a reliable check down, but he’s also a good enough runningback that we can count on him for screens and swing passes. Like Felix Jones, Murray is deadly in space, and swinging the ball out to Murray in such situations would allow him to get first downs and help the Cowboys retain possession.
Finally, the biggest reason why I’m not as worried about Witten’s return is Dez Bryant. I don’t do fantasy football; I’ll expostulate on that at another time. But I tell any of my friends and acquaintances who do that stuff to take Dez Bryant. This is the year that it’s all going to materialize for Dez Bryant. He’s developing a good rapport with Romo; he’s finally gaining his trust. We’ve all bore witness to this in the Raiders and the Chargers games. Plus, you’ve got Dez Bryant now asking for Jay Novacek’s mentoring. The man who was Troy Aikman’s security blanket thousands of years ago in the 1990′s, when the Cowboys winning a Super Bowl to us now seems like a distant memory to the point of a dream we all collectively imagined, is taking Dez Bryant under his wing. If Bryant listens well, then Bryant’s going to play with that same mentality Jay Novacek had in helping his quarterback out in a pinch.
Long term, we need Jason Witten. Teams will key in on weakness there without him and all of the things I listed above will be harder to execute. There will be tape on our Witten-less protections by that point. We need him back for the season.
Regarding Opening Night against the New York Giants, I’m confident in the Cowboys’ abilities to win without Jason Witten.