Editor's note: Jason Witten, the longest-tenured player in Dallas Cowboys history, plans to sign with the Las Vegas Raiders, agreeing to a one-year deal. This story was originally published on Feb. 10, 2020.
FRISCO, Texas -- As Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten made the media rounds at Super Bowl LIV two weeks ago, he sounded like someone in search of playing a 17th season and not starting his coaching career just yet.
"I'm proud of the way I played -- I think I want to make another run at that," Witten said on "The Rich Eisen Show." "I know this: The opportunity to play, when that leaves, it is over. A big part of me has been tied to coaching, and I want to get into coaching and make a difference that way. But there is a lot of time to coach and very little time left for me to play. So, I've got a little time to make my decision, but I think I'm leaning towards that."
Witten is set to be a free agent in March. He had a conversation with Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy about joining the coaching staff, but he was not offered the chance to coach tight ends (Lunda Wells took over that position). That staffing move complicated matters from last December when Witten said he would make a quick decision on his future, but there really is no rush if he wants to look at all the options to continue playing.
As strange as it is to think about quarterback Tom Brady playing for a team other than the New England Patriots or quarterback Philip Rivers playing for a team other than the Los Angeles Chargers, it is just as strange to think about Witten in another uniform.
Witten is the "Mr. Cowboy" of owner Jerry Jones' era -- a nickname Witten loathes because, to him, Bob Lilly is the one and only "Mr. Cowboy," a Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle who played for Dallas for 14 seasons (1961-74). However, nobody has worn a Cowboys uniform longer than Witten or played in more games than Witten (255). The 37-year-old tight end is the franchise leader in catches (1,215) and receiving yards (12,977) and No. 2 in touchdown receptions (72), one shy of Dez Bryant's record.
In 2018, Witten started out with the idea of continuing to play until he decided to join ESPN's Monday Night Football in April. Last year, he announced his decision to return to the Cowboys in late February.
If Witten does not have a contract with the Cowboys before free agency begins March 18, then he will have to play elsewhere -- and he would not be the first longtime Cowboy to go elsewhere.
Longtime Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith played his final two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals (2003-04). Longtime Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett played the 1988 season for the Denver Broncos. Former Dallas offensive lineman Larry Allen played two seasons for the San Francisco 49ers (2006-07). DeMarcus Ware, a Cowboys linebacker from 2005 through 2013, played three seasons for the Broncos. Smith, Dorsett and Allen are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Ware is soon to join them.
Witten has a Hall of Fame résumé already, even without a Super Bowl ring.
In some ways, Witten faces a decision similar to Smith's in 2003. When Bill Parcells took over as the Cowboys' new coach, he wanted to move on from the NFL's all-time leading rusher and Smith knew it. Smith and Jones came to a mutual decision to part ways.
"There was no doubt I was going to continue to play," Smith said.
Smith was 34 when he joined the Cardinals and coming off a 975-yard season for the Cowboys.
"I thought I had more in the tank," Smith said from Super Bowl LIV during a promotion for Marriott. "I felt like I still was a 1,000- to 1,200-yard back, and I felt like I could continue [to] do that."
Smith suffered a broken shoulder in his return to Texas Stadium and played in 10 games in 2003, finishing with 256 yards on 90 carries with two touchdowns. In 2004, he had 267 carries for 937 yards and nine touchdowns.
"While at Arizona, I realized the game had passed me by and it was time for me to walk away from the game," Smith said. "There was nothing else I could do, so I made a decision to call it quits. ... At the end of the day, when the dust settled, I started to ask the question, 'Why am I doing it?' and, 'What do I have to prove? What's left out there for me to accomplish outside of getting hurt?' Those were the things that helped me make that decision. But I also realized how much love I had for the Cowboys and the passion I had for the Cowboys."
A generation before Smith, Dorsett spent his first 11 years with the Cowboys (1977-87) and was the franchise leader in rushing yards, won a Super Bowl, appeared in four Pro Bowls and was a certain Hall of Famer. With the arrival of Herschel Walker, Dorsett's playing time dropped and he sought a trade.
Denver coach Dan Reeves, who was in Dallas when the Cowboys drafted Dorsett, acquired the running back in a 1988 trade.
"There was a connection there [with Reeves] and that was good for me," Dorsett said. "When you've been in a place for double-digit years and all of a sudden you pack up and move, things feel a little strange. It takes some getting used to. The game is still the same game, but obviously your friends and things of that nature change. It's a tough situation."
Dorsett, who was 34 at the time of the trade, finished the season with 703 yards on 181 carries and five touchdowns. In getting ready for the 1989 season, he suffered a knee injury that ended his career.
Witten turns 38 in May. Last season, he caught 63 passes for 529 yards and had four touchdowns while starting every game. He played in 75.4% of the snaps. His numbers were similar to those in 2017 and came in much fewer snaps.
Could he have similar production in his 17th season with the Cowboys or another team with fewer snaps?
Then there are the off-field factors. Witten and his wife, Michelle, have four children. They have been involved in the Dallas community since the Cowboys' third-round pick arrived in 2003.
"I tell you what, 16 years is a long time to play in the National Football League, and I can't tell him, 'If you can't get it done here, maybe just hang it up.' It's a long, long career," Dorsett said. "He's got a lot to be proud of to say he played for 16 years, but if he wants to keep playing, maybe it looks like it won't be here. That'll be something to get used to. I know when I left and went to Denver, it was strange. It was strange.
"If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't have done it."