This isn’t the farewell fit for a player like Jason Witten, but neither was the goodbye for the last Cowboys great who walked out the door and into the broadcast booth.
On Friday reports surfaced that the 15-year tight end has decided to retire and go to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” booth to be the new color analyst, filling Jon Gruden’s vacancy and beginning his second career just as his first comes to an end.
In that case, the timing doesn’t seem off. The job has been up for grabs the past four months since Gruden went back to Oakland. If Witten wants it—and it certainly appears that he does—the gig seems to be his. But that’s the only case where the timing makes sense. Not only did Witten not get a year-long farewell tour, but his news comes during the middle of the NFL draft, when his team appears unprepared on and off the field to accept the news.
The Cowboys, in short, do not have a replacement for Witten on the roster. They also do not have a replacement for Dez Bryant, whom they released two weeks ago, so deep into free agency that it helped neither Dallas nor their all-time leader in receiving touchdowns.
On Friday afternoon Jerry Jones read a prepared statement with some ad-lib about where the team stands with Witten. Rarely one to have to work off a script, Jones did this to begin a press conference introducing the Cowboys’ first-round pick, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
“I’ve talked to Jason several times this week. I have met with him, met with him as late as just a few hours ago, and we’ve had great discussions. I’ll keep the details of those discussions private forever,” Jones said.
“He has not made any decisions that are definite at this time. We have no announcement today as it pertains to Jason’s future other than to say that he’s a wonderful and valued member of our organization and our family.”
The MMQB’s Albert Breer reports that Witten had been taking part in the Cowboys’ offseason program these past two weeks. Maybe this news didn’t catch the Cowboys by surprise, but they seem surprised.
It’s hard to find receiving help for Dak Prescott on Dallas’s depth chart. The Cowboys do not have a clear X receiver with Bryant’s departure, and even though Bryant has lost a step in recent years, he would no doubt be their best option in 2018 if still on the roster. Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and newly acquired Allen Hurns are the top wideouts on today’s Dallas Cowboys.
And the cupboard is nearly empty at tight end. There’s Geoff Swaim, who caught two passes for 25 yards last season; undrafted second-year player Blake Jarwin; and basketball player turned tight end (and nearly defensive end) Rico Gathers. The latter two have no career stats.
At No. 19 in the first round on Thursday night, the Cowboys had their pick of pass catchers. They could have gone with D.J. Moore or Calvin Ridley at receiver and found value there. (South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst might have been a reach for Dallas at 19, as he was for Baltimore at 25, but he was there for the taking, too.) The Cowboys took a linebacker, and it’s possible that even with the events of Friday, they would have selected Vander Esch there.
Dallas has picks in the middle of the second and third rounds, respectively, before charging up for seven picks in the final four on Saturday. The Cowboys could use some of that mid-round capital to draft one of the remaining pass-catchers available, but they also want to stay competitive in the Earl Thomas sweepstakes, and surely a draft-pick-needy Seahawks team would like some of those picks in return.
Like Tony Romo last year, Witten would go instantly from the playing field to one of the top broadcast booths in football. But unlike Romo, his replacement didn’t ultimately force him out. A sure-fire Hall of Famer in five or six years as the Cowboys’ all-time leader in receiving yards, games played and consecutive starts, Witten leaves just when the Cowboys desperately need him to stay.
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