Sometimes when a player is labeled as a good guy and leader, what often gets lost is the competitive fire and passion that burns inside of them.
The latter is easy to see when it’s manifested in emotions with players such as Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Not so sometimes when it’s doing the right thing, in say a right-thing guy such as tight Jason Witten.
Ironically, those two worlds collided for Witten this week.
He is set to tie former Cowboys defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones’ record for the most starts in franchise history at 203 when he takes the field Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
Witten didn’t talk to me when I was in Dallas. He didn’t help me. … I hated him. I hated Witten. Former Cowboys backup tight end Martellus Bennett
But in the days leading up to the game, Witten has had to hear criticism from New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett about Witten not helping him and not being a good teammate when he was with the Cowboys from 2008-2011.
“Witten didn’t talk to me when I was in Dallas. He didn’t help me,” said Bennett, appearing in an ESPN E:60 feature Wednesday night. “Very rarely did we talk. I hated him. I hated Witten.”
Witten has heard about the comments, but hasn’t seen the segment. He took the high road when initially asked about Bennett.
“I did hear about it,” Witten said. “Marty is a good player. He enjoys entertaining, but I’m glad he’s in a good place now and he’s having a good year so far.”
Bennett caught 85 catches and four touchdowns in four seasons with the Cowboys. Has has averaged 66 catches in each of the past four seasons with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. He is en route to another 60-plus catch season in New England with 21 catches and four touchdowns in five games.
What at the time frustrated Bennett, a highly-touted, second-round pick in 2008 out of Texas A&M, is what Witten is being celebrated for now. He is a highly-competitive player, who not only rarely misses a game and rarely comes off the field, but also never misses practice.
Martellus probably wanted his opportunity and to be able to go play and I get that. So that’s why I said I know he’s in a good place. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten
“Hey look, I’ve always taken a lot of pride in that I want to play and play at a high level,” Witten said. “I’m always communicating and helping and all of that stuff. And there is a part of the business that I get. Martellus probably wanted his opportunity and to be able to go play and I get that. So that’s why I said I know he’s in a good place.
“For me, every day you’ve got to go prove it and you’ve got to go earn it and that’s something I have a chip on my shoulder and it really gives me confidence because that’s the way I approach it. [Former Cowboys tight end] Dan Campbell didn’t want to give me his job, and he was a great leader. It’s just competition within a team. Thriving cultures and really good teams, and coach [Jason] Garrett has done a great job here. You create that competition within. That’s good because that’s bringing out your best. I’m a better player because of that and I think hopefully other people would say the same things.”
Tight end Geoff Swaim heard that criticism of Witten before he came to the Cowboys, about Witten never giving young guys an opportunity to develop because he never let them play. But he said he looks at as an opportunity to learn from the best and considers Witten the toughest player mentally and physically he’s every been around because of his ability to consistently practice and play through anything.
As much as Witten appreciates being the Cowboys all-time leading receiver and having the second-most catches (1,045) and yards (11,447) of any tight end in NFL history, putting him on track to one day be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, most of all he values showing up and playing.
He owns the team record for consecutive games played at 208, from 2003 until present. After Sunday, he will be one game behind Lee Roy Jordan’s team record for consecutive starts of 154.
“To me, those stats are always the most impressive,” Garrett said. “Different guys at different positions will always have numbers that are impressive whether it’s passing yards or touchdowns or completions or receptions or sacks, whatever those things are. They’re always very impressive, but the stuff that I think draws the most respect from people inside of football is the consecutive starts. Sometimes that requires some good fortune, but I also think the guys that are able to play week in week out are the ones who are most respected.
Every day you’ve got to go prove it and you’ve got to go earn it. … You create that competition within. That’s good because that’s bringing out your best. Witten
“Witt’s just a rare individual. He’s a great football player: 14 years, 10-time Pro Bowler, arguable the best all-around tight end of his generation. But what he does each and every day is an example to the rest of us, coaches, players, guys he plays with, guys he plays against, he just does it the right way and he’s done it the right way for a long, long time.”
Witten missed the fifth game of his rookie season in 2003 after suffering a broken jaw. Since then he’s played with sprained ankles, sore shoulders, broken ribs and even a lacerated spleen in 2012.
The last game he didn’t start was Dec. 10, 2006 against the New Orleans Saints because of the alignment the Cowboys opened the game in. He still had four catches for 33 yards in a blowout loss.
Witten says part of his durability is luck, but most of it is commitment to his teammates.
“I love to play football and I think anybody that’s ever been my teammate or I’ve been theirs understands how much I love that,” Witten said. “And so when you break your collarbone or you do something like that, that’s out of your control. You’re put on the shelf for a few weeks. For me, I’ve been lucky from that standpoint and then when you have injuries you just grind it out.
“The spleen was a little bit different and that will be one we’ll always remember and talk about, but everything else is just try to work really hard because I couldn’t imagine not being out there whether we were Week 16 and out of the playoffs or whether we’re playing for a championship.”
The Cowboys can’t fathom him not being there, either.
There’s Bennett’s point of view and there is the opinion of the guys in the Cowboys’ locker room. No question which one matters most to Witten.
“He is going to go down as a legend, not just for the Cowboys but the NFL,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “He is a guy that when I came in here, that’s the type of guy I tried to model myself after.”
Cowboys at Packers
3:25 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4