Jason Witten looks to pass history

IRVING, Texas -- With two games left in the regular season, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten stands on the edge of NFL history.

Given how Witten's season started, that is a remarkable feat.

With a career-high 97 catches, Witten needs six in the final two games against the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins to break Tony Gonzalez's NFL season record for receptions by a tight end.

"I always felt good, kept my confidence up, but it was a pretty humbling experience there for a few games, that stretch where I felt like nothing could go right," Witten said. "Just had to stay the course and be mentally strong and tough enough to block that out and move on. You know what you've done in the past and what got you to this point, but, yeah, it's probably more special because of how it started out for me."

In the first three weeks of the season, Witten dropped five passes. He had four penalties. He had only eight catches for 76 yards.

At 30, was Witten facing the inevitable slide because of age?

He never believed that. The Cowboys never believed that.

What makes Witten great is his preparation. More than any player, he loves the process. During down times in training camp he will work on something as simple as how to get out of a three-point stance. His teammates marvel at his work in practice and his serious-mindedness.

For most of the preseason, the process was taken away because of a lacerated spleen he suffered Aug. 13 at Oakland. He hardly practiced before the Sept. 5 season opener against the New York Giants. He was medically cleared the night before the game only after seeing a doctor in New York.

But he was Jason Witten in name only that night, not the Witten with seven Pro Bowl appearances on his r&233;sum&233;.

"You know, we talked about him saying, 'I'm playing in that Giant game,' after he had the lacerated spleen, and I'm thinking to myself, 'This guy's crazy,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "But he was bound and determined to play. We talk about Dez [Bryant]'s finger [and] that was a very similar thing for our football team up there in New York.

"Because a guy like this comes out -- he hadn't practiced in four and a half weeks, and he was going to play in this game. The impact that that has on your team is unbelievable. He didn't have a great game that night. He was kind of solid, caught a couple balls. But he wasn't quite himself for probably three or four weeks after that. I think we all saw that."

Witten calls the Giants game the most memorable of his career, and all he had was two catches for 10 yards.

"That's what you stand for, that's what you want to be remembered for, more than any catches, playing in those situations," Witten said.

He will not use the spleen as an excuse for his slow start, and while he said his confidence remained high, he found himself catching passes after practice for reassurance. He credited tight ends coach John Garrett for keeping him sane, to a degree.

"He almost kind of blew it off a little bit [like], 'You'll be all right. You've got good hands, don't worry about it,'" Witten said.

"You say it as a veteran player, 'Stay the course, keep getting better and better,' but when that happens you better have that mindset and be able to do that."

Along the way he did use the talk about him slowing down as motivation.

"It's one thing to be, 'Hey, it's a tough couple of games,' but it's another when it's not just that it's, 'He can't do it,'" Witten said.

"It fuels you. It drives you. Every year it's to be the best tight end and there's a lot of good ones. To kind of answer that now, it's good to eliminate that noise."

He would give it all up for more wins and a playoff appearance, but without Witten the Cowboys could not compete for the postseason.

Since the slow start, he has had only one more drop and two penalties in the past 11 games. He surpassed Michael Irvin on Nov. 4 as the franchise leader in catches and has an outside shot at the Hall of Famer's team record for catches in a season (111, 1995).

"He never surprises me just because he is such a good player," Jason Garrett said. "He just goes about it the right way. You hear me say this a lot about guys, but he's the best example of it: He loves the game. And he works so hard at it."