Dallas Cowboys’ tight end Jason Witten struggled for his third straight week, this time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, to the shagrin of most Cowboys’ fans. And the shoo-in Hall of Famer has no one to blame but himself. Witten has set such a high standard in the past ten years that his uncharacteristic mistakes so far this season clearly indicate that something major is wrong.
On Sunday, Witten allowed a sack, committed two false start penalties and dropped three passes. Whether the passes were catchable or not are another argument, but let’s say he at least had a chance at catching them all. He recorded just two receptions on the day for eight yards and promptly exited the locker-room without fielding any questions from the media after the game. Clearly, Witten realizes something is wrong as well.
It all started in the Cowboys’ first preseason game of the year against the Oakland Raiders. Witten suffered internal bleeding and a lacerated spleen after being tackled on the Cowboys’ first offensive series by Raider’s linebacker Rolando McClain. He spent the rest of the preseason on the sidelines. After getting medical approval just prior to the game, Witten made his season debut against the World Champion New York Giants in Week One. It was an unspectacular debut as Witten recorded only two catches for 10 yards and appeared a bit out of sorts. But his courage and leadership were praised as keys to the Cowboys’ victory.
In Week Two’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Witten struggled catching the ball recording three drops. He was able to record four receptions for 58 yards but still appeared to be struggling to get back into form. I believe most fans chalked it up to sideline “rust” and thought Witten would soon be his old self. Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers seems to have debunked that theory. Not to say Witten will be unable to regain his previous production, but diagnosing the problem is the first step in solving it.
Since this problem started with an injury, it might answer it as well. Witten is everything you’d want in a football player. He combines athletic ability with mental acuity and heart. In his ten year career, Witten has only missed one game due to injury. And that was during his rookie year, when he was sidelined due to a fractured jaw. That not only means Witten’s durable, but he’s mentally tough. I’m sure there have been many times in his career where he’s played injured and excelled. So what’s the difference now? The answer may lie with the type of injury.
In an interview with BaD Radio on KTCK in Dallas on September 13th, Witten described this injury as something he’s never experienced before: “life” threatening.
“This whole injury I think was probably the first time, definitely in my career, that is kind of a different injury than all others. If you ask doc and the trainers there over at Valley Ranch, they’d say I wore them out pretty good over the last three, three and a half weeks. Not just because I wanted to play but because of the case of the injury. I think being an organ like that, it’s not a twisted ankle where you can just tape it up and keep going. … If you Google ‘spleen injuries’ the end result in some of those cases is death. I think that freaks people out more than anything else. For me, I think the hard part was I was feeling good, I just wasn’t able to practice and ultimately were able to get approved there and cleared to play in that game. I think more than anything for me, it was not only to play in that game, how great that was, but moving into this week, everything that you want. Now you’re practicing, now your game plan’s in. All that good stuff. So personally, in my mind I think we’re gonna get back to the norm of the way I play and what I do.”
Could it be Witten got freaked out? No one would blame him if he did. Surely, the thought crossed his mind. I mean, he Googled it for goodness sake. So here’s the question: Is Jason Witten playing scared? It certainly would explain the dropped passes and his mental mistakes. But it seems uncharacteristic for the player we’ve all grown to love.
But spleen injuries are no joke. Just ask former NFL journey-man quarterback Chris Simms. In 2006, he had to have emergency surgery after a game against the Carolina Panthers to have his spleen removed. Simms, son of New York Giant great quarterback Phil Simms, suffered a ruptured spleen during a hard tackle in the game, lost five pints of blood internally and was forty five minutes from dying, according to doctors. As a player, he never was quite the same again.
Since his return, Witten pops up from every hit seemingly untouched and ready for more. But feeling good physically was something he mentioned in the above quote as well. It seems to indicate that his problem isn’t physical, but mental. Imagine feeling fine on the outside but having a life-threatening injury occurring on the inside. It has to be a bit unsettling. Making a mental note of every hard hit, wondering if anything bad just happened inside your own body, has too be mentally taxing. Again, it doesn’t seem to be in his character, but this is something Witten’s never experienced before. Who knows how it would effect him on the field?
Another possible answer is that Father Time is catching up with Witten. Although he is playing in his tenth season, Witten is only 30 years old. It’s seems unlikely that he has reached an age where his skills are declining, although it’s happened in the NFL before. But I think if the Cowboys’ coaching staff really believed this, they would have never let Martellus Bennett go.
Finally, it could just be a case of rust. Witten was sidelined for almost a month during the preseason. For a player who is used to playing all the time, the rest could have been very detrimental. But after three weeks to practice and play, you’d think the rust would have been shaken off by now.
Ofcourse, this is all purely speculation. The truth is, only Jason Witten knows what’s going on with Jason Witten. And he’s not talking right now. But his inconsistent play on the field sure is. Let’s hope Witten can bounce back next week against a tight end friendly defense via the Chicago Bears.