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Is ESPN the Bigger Winner in Jason Witten’s Return to the Cowboys?

Eleven-time pro bowler Jason Witten just announced that he will come out of retirement after a one-year absence to suit up for the Dallas Cowboys once again. Witten, who turns 37 in May, is the second all-time leader among tight ends in receptions and receiving yards, trailing Tony Gonzalez. All of Witten’s damage has been done in a Dallas uniform since he was drafted out of Tennessee in 2003.

After the 2017 season, Witten originally called it quits and took a job alongside Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, replacing current Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.

It’s a real challenge to speak in front of TV cameras, let alone for someone like Witten. With no prior experience, he was asked to step in on a stand-alone, primetime stage in Monday Night Football.

Having said that, he was pretty terrible. His constant stumbling and lack of any qualities that distinguished him from other broadcasters made for a serious ear-sore during games. He got clowned after describing a cleverly improvised Aaron Rodgers touchdown as “pulling another rabbit out of his head” (wouldn’t that be a sight?) instead of his hat.

This was just one of many cringeworthy moments in the booth that brought plenty of criticism Witten’s way, which had to be tough for a guy who’d been one of the most well respected players in the league.

Despite playing for a Dallas Cowboys team that’s right up there with the New England Patriots, New York Yankees, Duke basketball, etc., in terms of national hatred, Witten has been lauded by fans since the start of his career.

Witten also felt inclined to leave because the guy he used to catch passes from, former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, took the same path Witten took before him: Going to the broadcast booth to call games right out of retirement.

Unlike Witten, Romo became a broadcasting superstar overnight. He brings a unique energy to the booth that complements longtime broadcaster Jim Nantz. He also impresses fans by predicting the play’s outcome pre-snap, especially when the signal caller audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Witten wasn’t just Romo’s former teammate, they’re extremely close friends and they were roommates for many years during training camp. Romo’s broadcasting triumph had to discourage Witten to some degree.

But to borrow Witten’s own words, part of his motive has to be “the fire inside to compete is too strong.” At age 37, coming off a 2017 season where he turned in career lows in yards, targets, and receptions, he’s not a world-beater or a life-changer by any metric. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t going to the Super Bowl because of this move, despite what delusional fans may believe.

But I still think Witten’s return will have a very positive impact on his team. He’s admired because he’s a no-nonsense guy who is going to come to work with no agenda other than helping his team win games.

As a captain on the Cowboys and certified leader of the team, he helps from an intangible standpoint. Some have said he has a career in coaching down the line; in an Instagram post yesterday welcoming him back to the team, running back Ezekiel Elliott called him “coach.”

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Welcome Back Coach

A post shared by Ezekiel Elliott (@ezekielelliott) on

In terms of on-the-field impact, he’s not the dominant pass-catching tight-end he used to be. But in third and short situations, a sure-handed Witten able to use his big body to box out any linebacker or safety covering him is a great security blanket for Cowboys’ quarterback Dak Prescott.

Witten has also proven himself to be a great run blocker. The formula to winning for Dallas the last couple years has been pretty simple: run the ball effectively with Ezekiel Elliott. Witten will help that cause by easily creating running lanes.

That’s why having Witten out of the broadcast booth and back on the gridiron is what’s best for the NFL. It’ll be fun to see how Witten looks coming off a year without playing. The more intriguing question may be: Who will replace Witten on Monday Night Football? All-time great quarterback Peyton Manning is the betting favorite right now.

-Simon Brady

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