FRISCO, Texas -- Jason Witten says it so often you wonder if people actually believe him.
“I feel damn good right now,” Witten said.
He believes it, but does anybody else?
“My wife, Michelle, is probably the only one who hears it enough to believe it,” Witten joked.
This is Witten’s 15th season with the Dallas Cowboys. He turned 35 in May. In the offseason he saw his best friend, Tony Romo, walk away from the game. He saw longtime teammates DeMarcus Ware and Doug Free retire. He sees former teammates Marc Colombo, Miles Austin, Andre Gurode and Josh Brent help out with the coaching and scouting staffs.
And he plays on.
And he keeps succeeding.
In last week’s preseason win against the Indianapolis Colts, he caught two passes for 24 yards. Both receptions delivered first downs on the Cowboys’ first scoring drive.
It is what he did as a 20-year-old rookie in 2003. It’s what he promises he can still do in 2017.
“I don’t know ‘better,’” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of Witten’s movement. “He’s never really ever not looked good to me, but I think he does (look) if the word is maybe a little fresher. I think that our approach with him, we’ve made him take some days off. He does not want to take those days off. He’s just listening and trusting the people that are giving him advice from not only coaches but the trainers and everybody else. I think that’s helped. ... He doesn’t just show up and get himself in shape in camp. You should see the guy, how he works. I know you guys do but the way he prepares to get himself ready for camp, I mean it’s a year-round thing for him. And I’ve never seen a professional that’s as professional about his job as Jason.”
In Tuesday’s practice he was matched up against safety Kavon Frazier in a one-on-one drill. Frazier was 9 years old in Witten’s rookie year. Nine.
At the snap, Witten worked his way into Frazier and angled out to his right. As he felt Frazier lean more to the outside, he cut sharply back inside and up the field, creating separation on the safety for an easy Dak Prescott completion.
Frazier ended up falling down.
“It was clean,” Frazier said, negating the thought of a possible push. “I just lost my feet.”
Frazier isn't the only one to be beaten by Witten on a route this summer.
“He’s like Kobe Bryant,” Frazier said. “He’s like the Kobe Bryant of football, kind of. Kobe lost a lot of his athletic ability when he got older, but he learned other stuff to make up for that.”
But Frazier is quick to say Witten has not lost his athletic ability.
Based on the offseason testing the Cowboys do, his 40-yard dash time now is not that different from the 4.65 he ran in 2003. He earned a golf cart in training camp and a parking spot at The Star as a result of his offseason testing.
“There’s some criteria we stick to that the numbers speak for themselves and he’s held on,” assistant strength and conditioning coach Brett Bech said. “I mean we always hear the cliché about Father Time, but he takes care of himself as good as anybody I’ve been around. Period.”
Witten’s game was never based on speed and athleticism. It has been based on execution, precision and knowledge. If Witten’s long speed has taken a hit, the quickness at the top of his routes hasn’t. There isn’t a more athletic player on the Cowboys’ roster than safety Byron Jones, and Witten has twisted him in knots this summer.
“He’s probably seen every type of coverage that anyone’s ever thrown at him, so he really knows how to use your leverage against you,” safety Jeff Heath said. “One thing he does that makes it hard to cover him is he gets the DBs sped up all the time. He makes it seem like he’s running really hard and really fast, so you get all out of whack and out of control and once he feels you’re out of control, then that’s when he counters and comes back the other way. He’s just a route technician.”
Witten did not practice Wednesday as he follows a plan put in place during the spring in which he does not work three straight days. His role has changed in recent years as the Cowboys became more of a running team, but Witten caught 69 passes last year, which was second-best on the team. He has caught at least 64 passes in a season every year since his rookie season.
There’s no reason to think the productivity will stop.
Maybe then more people than his wife will believe him.