<
>

Jason Witten's key to success is starting over

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is entering his 14th season but goes back to the basics for every training camp. AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

At some point on Saturday when nobody is really watching before, during or even after the Dallas Cowboys' first training camp practice, Jason Witten will drop into a three-point stance.

He will balance himself, making sure he's not leaning too much to his left or right. He will make sure he is not too top heavy. He will make sure he is not leaning back too much. Everything must be centered. The pressure on his fingers can't be too much but not too light either. From there he will fire off the line, taking three or four steps before stopping. He will do it over and over again.

It's something he has done thousands and thousands of time, but he will act as if he has never done it before.

If you're looking for a reason why Witten has been able to maintain his success over the years, it is in these moments.

What might be mundane for most is ultra-important to Witten.

"I've never seen a guy who emulates the practice-how-you-play more than him," said wide receiver Cole Beasley, who moved into the locker next to Witten this spring. "It looks just like Sunday out there when he's practicing. It's insane. There's other guys that do it, but I've never seen it like that consistent."

Witten turned 34 in May. He is entering his 14th season. He has been named to the Pro Bowl 10 times. No Cowboy has played in more consecutive games in team history. No Cowboy has caught more passes than Witten either.

But every year it is the same for Witten. He watches every snap from the previous season, looking at the good and the bad. He looks at other tight ends across the league to see what he can incorporate into his game.

This is his 14th year, but he acts as if it's his first.

"Start over," Witten said. "For me, even more so now, you constantly have to reevaluate that so. I started from scratch, watch every play. Go into the stance, catching, blocking, all those things that go into what I want to do and how I want to play. I think if you don't start over and go through that process, sometimes you get through it a little bit quicker in certain situations. But for me, I think that's the only way you can approach it."

When he talked about the closing of the Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility this spring, he mentioned butterflies in his stomach when he would turn left at the guard shack and park around back in the players' lot.

It is a short walk from the locker room at the River Ridge practice fields in Oxnard, California, to the grass fields. When the fans see him jog to the field, they will cheer his name and the butterflies will grow.

Even if the coaches want to give him a day off, he will argue about needing work. He might relent, but he never approaches work with dread.

"Never a day and really never a rep in anything he's ever done," coach Jason Garrett said. "That doesn't mean he wins all the time, but his approach is always right. And that's probably line one with him is he's as professional a person as a player as I've ever been around. His commitment to doing things the right way, commitment to excellence is unmatched. And, again, it's beyond a day. It's everything within that day."

Time and age are undefeated in the NFL. The best players delay it as best they can. Witten has altered his workouts in recent years, working more on his core and flexibility than power. He watches what he eats as well.

He led the Cowboys in receptions last year with 77 but only for 713 yards and three touchdowns. His 9.3 yards per catch were more about the routes he was asked to run than an inability to run them. In 2015, he averaged 11 yards per catch. Tony Romo's return to health should see Witten's numbers increase.

While some might wonder if Witten, who is signed through 2017, will slow down, he just keeps going, keeping something Bill Parcells said over and over.

"Parcells had an old saying -- it's a show-me game. It is that," Witten said. "So you've got to be able to take the negative criticism when it comes and allow it to fuel you to be a better player, not to get bitter or upset about it. I love playing, and obviously, I have a high expectation and standard I want to play at.”

Which is why the first day of training camp practice, he will work on his three-point stance.