IRVING, Texas -- With 968 career catches for 10,740 yards and 10 Pro Bowl appearances, Jason Witten knows a tight end.
Rob Gronkowski has Witten’s seal of approval.
“I think in studying tight ends and watching those guys, he does a great job of being a complete tight end,” Witten said. “He blocks inside, he blocks on the perimeter, and he’s dynamic in the passing game. You can tell that he has a lot of confidence and the quarterback has a lot of confidence in him. He makes big-time catches, so he’s as good as there is at the position. He continues to make plays time and time again. I got a lot of respect for his game.”
For just the second time in the regular season, Witten and Gronkowski will be on the same field when the Dallas Cowboys host the New England Patriots on Sunday. In 2011, Gronkowski caught seven passes for 74 yards in the Patriots’ 20-16 win at Gillette Stadium. Witten caught four passes for 48 yards and a touchdown.
Witten has the most catches among tight ends this season, 25, good for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Gronkowski has the most touchdowns among tight ends, with four in the Patriots’ first three games. He has 16 catches for 308 yards.
Each has 59 career touchdowns.
Witten is in his 13th season; Gronkowski is in his sixth.
Witten has caught a pass in 107 straight games, tied for the longest current streak. Gronkowski has caught a pass in 68 straight games in which he has played, which is the fourth-longest streak.
Because Witten understands how tight ends are covered, he is astounded at Gronkowski’s 19.3 yards per catch this season.
“I think he’s dynamic with the ball,” Witten said. “They have a passing attack that’s a vertical passing attack. I think it complements a couple of things: the quarterback [Tom Brady] hangs on him with the throws and he does a great job running routes. He’s big-time with the touch catch. He’s got a large radius to get the ball and he’s really good after he catches it. To be able to average that is really hard, so that’s what I mean, you respect the way he plays.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick gushed about Witten earlier in the week. The coach values the consistency, durability and dependability Witten has displayed. As Witten praised Gronkowski for being an all-around tight end, Belichick praised Witten.
And Witten appreciated Belichick’s comments.
“I think any player would say that they want their coaches’ respect, they want their teammates’ respect, and they want their opponent to respect them,” Witten said. “He’s somebody, I think, that we all respect the way his team wins and just their records over the years. I think we always talk about it, you want to put your film out there and you want to be proud of it, the way you play. He’s a football guy and knows a lot of football. It means a lot, but your focus isn’t on that. It’s about winning the game.”
This is not some sort of passing the torch from one generation’s great tight end to the next.
In 2005, when the Cowboys got ready to play the Kansas City Chiefs, Bill Parcells challenged Witten throughout the week to be the best tight end on the field. On the other side that week was Tony Gonzalez, who was at the top of his game.
Witten caught seven passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. Gonzalez caught five passes for 94 yards.
But the Cowboys won 31-28.
Thirteen years into his career, Witten retains that drive. But he would gladly take a win Sunday than have more catches than Gronkowski.
“Any competitor, I think, wants to be the best every time they’re out there,” Witten said. “I always say that I continue to set the standard really high for myself, but you don’t get into a catch count or any of that stuff. I think it’s just in how you play, how you approach the game. He’s somebody that I have a lot of respect for in the way he plays. He’s done it at a high level now for quite a few years. So I think I respect how complete of a tight end he is more than anything else.”