Jason Witten focused on present, but coaching could be his future

The joy Jason Witten gets from playing football was apparent after his 20-yard touchdown catch last week against the New York Giants.

On what had been a frustrating day for him and the Dallas Cowboys' offense, Witten was able to find a seam against the Giants and come up with what turned into the winning touchdown catch. Then there was a celebratory head-butt with James Hanna, hard knocks from several offensive linemen and a slap from Dak Prescott.

At that moment, the juice made him feel rejuvenated.

But Witten is 35 and in his 15th season, and these could be the final three games of his career if the Cowboys miss the playoffs. He has offered no hints as to his future but believes he is still playing at a high level.

"I don't have any avocado salad stories for you guys or anything good like that, but, you know, I feel damn good," Witten said. "I really do. I know what the expectations and standards are for me and the way I play, and certainly I'll be the first one to say if I don't feel like I can do it. But I feel really good."

He knows there aren't many games left to be played, but that doesn't mean football won't be part of his future. A few weeks ago, his name was linked to the head-coaching position at the University of Tennessee. Some might have dismissed the idea that he would depart before the Cowboys' season ended, but there were conversations about Witten returning to his alma mater.

Witten's interest in coaching isn't a surprise. The most influential man in his life, his grandfather, Dave Rider, was his high school coach in Elizabethton, Tennessee. His brothers, Shawn and Ryan, coach there now.

"People always laugh about it even when I said, 'Nah, I’m not going to do that one day,'" Witten said. "We'll see where that takes you, but I just think very early on athletics and football, in specific, that was my place."

Witten has seen everything in his 236 games with the Cowboys, the most in franchise history. He has played for Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett. He has had seven position coaches: Tony Sparano, Paul Pasqualoni, Freddie Kitchens, John Garrett, Wes Phillips, Mike Pope and Steve Loney. He has had six playcallers: Parcells, Sean Payton, Sparano, Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan and Scott Linehan.

"I would just lean on everything that I've prepared for my whole life. Had great coaches around me at every step of the way in my career," Witten said. "I've had coaches that believe that you motivate within and other coaches that believe they do the motivating ... I hope that I'd be very honest, demanding, high standards, not come off those standards in which what allows you to win and lose. But also just I hope if anything could leap off is my love and passion for this game.

"I believe there's a certain way you play it and coach it, and I think if they're around me as a coach that that would be more than anything else they would see that. There's got to be trust that's unwavering. I hope I would show that in the way I communicated."

Hanna has been in the meeting room with Witten the past six seasons. When he arrived in 2012, Hanna was stunned by how much Witten knew about the tight end position. But Hanna said Witten also knew the responsibilities everybody has on each play. He sees subtle shifts and changes on a defense immediately.

"I truly still don't fully understand how he sees everything he does, which I think I'm pretty sure gets frustrating for him because other people don't see everything as easily as he does on the field," Hanna said. "Everybody can see stuff on tape, but it's different when you're live. He just has an instinct, a knack for it."

During games, Witten offers suggestions to the coaches on the sideline between series. During the practice week, he will offer tips as well. His experience plays a large part in his being right.

"I constantly am communicating that and asking questions," Witten said. "Had great coaches around here that have allowed me to pick their brains [about] a lot of different things from that standpoint. But I think more than anything else, it helps me to prepare as a player ... It's a mental game. It 100 percent is a mental game, especially when you're in the area that I'm in. That's why I work so hard at it. It's almost like you've got the answers to the test before you take the test."

A head coach has to command the room. Witten has experience. Teammates have marveled at Witten's speeches. On the day the team's credo was finalized last spring, Witten brought together all of the tenets espoused by the leadership council throughout the offseason.

He told the room he was "all-in," asked the leaders of each position group and each player in the group to stand up and asked if they were all-in. Sean Lee stood up first with his linebackers, and they repeated, "All-in." By the end of the speech, the entire room stood -- players, coaches, athletic trainers, equipment managers, support staff. Witten stared back at the room of more than 100.

"It was powerful," said one person who was in the room for the speech.

Witten speaks a language that reaches all audiences, from his 21-year-old teammate to a 70-year-old coach. He cleverly mixes in cuss words for emphasis and effect. He has an amazing recall of what coaches and teammates say.

When Witten walks into the locker room, players notice. He can be serious, or he can joke. A few weeks ago, a couple of rookies were shooting an oversized tennis ball into a laundry bin. Witten called for the ball and let it fly about 20 feet, untouched into the bin. He left his hand in the air, holding the follow-through like he was Larry Bird winning the 3-point contest.

"He gets it. He understands how the game works,” Linehan said. "He knows there's times when you got to be on players, and it's not about being a player's best friend. It's about gaining their respect and pushing them. And also knowing there are times you got to put your arm around somebody and get their attention and get their confidence back sometimes. He knows both sides of that as a player. He knows that it's not easy. He has a great understanding of the profession."