Hooper's Rip - And 'The Three Faces Of Jason Witten
FRISCO - The phrase "apropos of nothing'' would seem appropriate when reviewing new Cleveland Browns tight end Austin Hooper taking a shot at former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten on Wednesday.
"I,'' Hooper told the Cleveland media in describing his team-first mentality, "don’t like doing the whole 'Jason Witten deal' where it is me vs. everyone else in the tight end room.''
But maybe it's easier to understand if we recognize that:
a) All of these NFL players belong to a fraternity of sorts, and maybe the tight ends are a clique inside the fraternity ... and they know each other and gossip about each other - so it is appropriate for them to be on the minds of one another.
b) Witten, as a future Hall-of-Famer, casts a large shadow over tight ends in this league. He is, even as he's moved from Dallas to the Las Vegas Raiders, where he might very well be a third-stringer, a presence.
A presence so large that, I'll argue, there are actually "The Three Faces Of Jason Witten.''
As someone who covered Witten during his entire career here (and someone, I'll add, who benefitted greatly from his generous one-on-one time in helping me understand the game), I feel qualified to address "The Three Faces Of Jason Witten.''
FACE NO. 1: THE GENEROUS ICON. This is the Witten who won NFL Man of the Year for his charitable work, who dotes on his wife and children, who some Cowboys players swear by as a "big brother,'' who other tight ends in the league (like Philadelphia's Zach Ertz) view as a role model, who Cowboys owner Jerry Jones often says is "one of the five finest people I've ever met.''
This is the Witten who Jones compares to John Wayne.
FACE NO. 2: THE ACTUAL HUMAN BEING. Of course, as I once said to Jerry, "You realize there is no 'John Wayne,' right? That his real first name was 'Marion' and that he didn't actually win the Civil War or World War II or Vietnam?''
Witten, like every other icon, is nevertheless a flawed person, as we all are. The elevation of him as a symbol - an act performed by the media, by fans and by the Cowboys and NFL PR machine - tends to hide any warts.
But Austin Hooper is apparently aware of at least one of those all-too-human warts.
FACE NO. 3: THE COMPETITIVE JERK. Hooper was asked about co-existing with his tight end teammate David Njoku, and tossed Witten under the bus in the process.
“David and I have always been cool,’' Hooper said on a Zoom call. "I am an open book. I don’t try to hoard information. I don’t like doing the whole Jason Witten deal where it is me vs. everyone else in the tight end room. I think it is more like we are all in this together.''
Again ... whoa.
There are some people who know Witten well enough to understand the reference. His competitiveness manifested itself in one way last season, when after a year off (in the broadcast booth), he returned to the Cowboys and started 16 games - some think, to the detriment of the development and even production of young backup Blake Jarwin.
It's a good bet that Witten never thought twice about volunteering to step aside, even a little bit.
Witten's competitiveness could be heard every summer in Oxnard, when he would trash-talk to the point of belittlement the DBs and linebackers who couldn't cover him.
“He’s a Hall-of-Famer on the field, off the field and as a trash-talker,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “He’s going to challenge you in every way possible. And when he does, he’s going to talk trash and let you know.''
"He's definitely talking (bleep) out there,'' former safety Barry Church once said, "but it brings the best out of everybody."
Explained Witten: "You compete. I think it's good for all of us. ... In practice, I think it makes you better. It definitely makes me better as a player."
The critics' view: Witten approach - "This is the National Football League now!'' he'd yell at rookies, or "Get this guy off the field!'' - was more for himself than to make others "better.''
That is surely the origin of Hooper's opinion of Witten, rooted in comments former Cowboys backup tight end Martellus Bennett has made over the years.
In a 2016 article, Bennett said he "hated Jason Witten. I appreciated his game, but I always hated him.’'
It's true that Witten was both a team leader in his years here and was particularly chummy and clubby with head coach Jason Garrett and QB Tony Romo. Others in the locker room felt excluded by the Romo/Witten friendship. It's also true that Witten's form of leadership demanded that things be done "the right way'' - which in his mind, was Witten's way.
Bennett's view of Witten softened after "Marty B'' left Dallas. He admitted that while he didn't have a good relationship with Witten, he was instructed by none other than Terrell Owens (also not a Witten fan) to study No. 82. Bennett added that as his career marched on, he "mimicked'' Witten's playing style.
And last year, when brother Michael Bennett was to sign with Dallas, more softening, as the Cowboys got a recommendation from Marty B.
"I thought it would be a good place (for Michael) to play,'' Martellus told 105.3 The Fan's "Shan & RJ'' show. “I told him there’s no place like playing for the Cowboys fans, that stadium, and the organization is top-class.''
READ MORE: Witten Signs One-Year Deal With Raiders
Witten is with the Los Angeles Raiders now, but his legacy in Dallas remains. And Austin Hooper is not wrong in pointing one one aspect of that legacy. Because there are Three Faces of Jason Witten.