FRISCO, Texas – It’s hard to simplify a career like Jason Witten’s into a single anecdote, but Jason Garrett made his best effort.
The Cowboys’ head coach, who has worked alongside Witten for 11 years, going all the way back to his time as the team’s offensive coordinator, was undeniably emotional at the All-Pro’s retirement ceremony on Thursday afternoon.
When he wasn’t choking back tears, Garrett shared a story from Witten’s twilight years, revolving around the route that helped turn him into a perennial Pro Bowler.
“This was his play – signature play,” Garrett said. “He’s got over 1,100 catches – probably half of them were on Y-Option. He caught 18 balls against the Giants a few years ago – probably half of those were on Y-Option.”
Anyone who has ever watched Witten play should be familiar with the concept. Breaking off the line, he identifies who’s defending him and what type of coverage he’s facing. Depending on the look, he has the option to break either inside, outside or sit right down on his route, facing back to the quarterback and presenting himself as an easy target.
“It’s one of the great givens in all of sports,” Garrett said. “They say Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook was the greatest given – I’ll put Witten’s Y-Option against it any day of the week.”
Of all the countless times Witten has practiced and honed that route, Garrett opted to describe one particular occasion – the Cowboys’ 24-20 playoff win against Detroit during the 2014 season, when Witten beat his coverage for 21 yards on a must-have 4th-and-6.
“We were down by three, we were on the plus 42-yard, and we said ‘We’re going for it,’” Garrett said. “This was the play of the game. We called Y-option.”
It was a clutch play in a big game, as it moved the Cowboys to Detroit’s 21-yard line. Six plays later, as Garrett recalled, Tony Romo found Terrance Williams for the game-winning points in what remains just the second Cowboys playoff win in the last 22 years.
Truth be told, it wasn’t the moment itself that Garrett was describing. This recollection came eight months after the fact, when Witten was asked to give a presentation on the play during a team meeting during the Cowboys’ 2015 training camp.
To hear it from his coach, Witten prepared for the presentation with the same attention to detail that made his route running a staple of the Cowboys offense for 15 years.
“The presentation that night took about a half an hour,” Garrett said. “For those of you guys who were here, in the room, you know what I’m talking about. It was simply the greatest presentation I’ve ever seen in football – the demonstration, the detail of what he does on this particular route was mind-boggling.”
Standing in front of the full coaching staff and the Cowboys’ 90-man training camp roster, Witten proceeded to give the textbook on the play – how he used his hands, how he shifted his weight, how he leveraged the defender based on different coverages.
The amount of nuance that goes into the play is expected for a guy with 1,152 catches for 12,448 yards and 68 touchdowns in his career – not to mention a guy who hasn’t missed a game since 2003.
What isn’t necessarily expected – and what made Garrett the most emotional – was the way Witten turned that hard work back on his teammates.
“He stops, and he says ‘I’ll tell you why this play really worked,’” Garrett said. “’I want you to look at Dez Bryant here, he’s our X receiver. They played two-man for one reason – Dez Bryant. They need a guy underneath, they need a guy on top. Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in the National Football League. He deserves that attention.’
On and on it went. Witten tossing out praise to his linemates – Tyron Smith, Ron Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Jermey Parnell – for fighting off the Lions’ rush. Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and DeMarco Murray, for drawing away coverage, allowing Witten to isolate himself against his man.
And obviously Romo, for keeping the play alive and having the wherewithal to stick with Witten through the end of his route.
“The guys that were on the bus together in 2003 from the hotel to the facility,” Garrett said. “It all came alive on 4th-and-6. Romo slid, threw it between the 8 and the 2 and we win.”
Garrett added: “it struck me that this play – his signature play, where he made it at the critical moment – he didn’t make it about him. He did what he always does, he makes it about everybody else. He made it about the team.”
As previously stated, it’d be hard to encapsulate a 15-year career, spanning 247 games and 1,152 catches, into just one story. But Jason Garrett might have done just that.
From the painstaking mastery of his craft, to the durability to perfect it over more than a decade, to the poise to come up with the play when it mattered most. And then, to reflect that success over toward the work of his teammates?
It doesn’t do justice to the totality of Witten’s entire career – but it comes pretty damn close.