As Ertz chases Witten's record, a friendship comes into focus

Zach Ertz needs 18 catches over the next four games to break Jason Witten's single-season record for tight ends of 110 receptions. Steven Ryan/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA -- City living has its advantages, but anybody who has done it knows that space is at a premium. As such, Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz does not yet have a man cave.

But plans for one are already swirling around Ertz's brain for when he and his wife, Julie, eventually move into their forever home. When that time comes, Jason Witten's game-worn Dallas Cowboys jersey will be hung prominently on the wall. It is the only jersey that Witten gave out to an opposing player in his 15-year career.

You can tell it kind of kills Ertz that his idol played for "America's Team." He is very much like the city he represents in his clear-cut distaste for Philly rivals. And as a San Francisco Bay Area native who grew up watching the 49ers, the aversion to "the star" comes naturally -- with one notable exception.

"Since I was 16, he was the guy that was always on TV, unfortunately, back in California," Ertz said of Witten, "and he was the guy I was forced to watch. But at the same time, he was the perfect guy for me to watch because I was able to see at 16 years old how a tight end should play."

The years since have sewn their stories together. A relationship was forged, a significant gesture was made and now Ertz is on pace to track Witten down in the record books. Sitting at 93 catches with four games to go, he is on track to eclipse Witten's mark for most single-season receptions by a tight end at 110.

"He's having a great year," Witten said. "We all have points in our career where you just get in the zone. When I watch him on tape, I can tell he’s doing things the right way. He’s advanced as a route runner, using his stems, leverage, things like that to get open."

That skill set was developed in part by dissecting Witten's game. Ertz said that he really began honing in on the intricacies of Witten's route-running once he got to the NFL.

"He was the guy I was always watching because it seemed like third down, he was always getting his number called and he was always attacking leverage, and so I really just modeled my game after him," Ertz said.

Little did he know that Witten was combing over Ertz's tape, as well. Once a line of communication was established, Witten relayed to Ertz that he had been studying his film during the offseason ever since the Stanford product was selected by the Eagles in the second round in 2013.

From that mutual admiration came a one-of-a-kind gift. When Witten retired from the NFL in May, Ertz posted a photo of himself holding Witten's jersey along with a note of congratulations. Witten revealed not long after that it was the only jersey he had given to an opposing player over 247 career games.

"I just never got into that whole thing," Witten said of jersey swapping. But he made an exception for Ertz.

"He's told me in the past it wasn't because he was my favorite tight end growing up; he said it was because he really respected how I played the game and how I was always trying to get better," Ertz said. "Being the only guy he ever traded a jersey with is honestly special."

Ertz used that same term, "special," to describe having Witten as part of the crew calling Monday night's home win against the Washington Redskins. During that game, Ertz set a franchise record for single-season receptions, passing Brian Westbrook (90).

Next up is Witten's record. Ertz can take a another leap toward that mark on Sunday in the Eagles' biggest game of the year against -- who else? -- the Cowboys.

"Obviously, everyone knows how I feel about him," Ertz said of Witten as his mind seemed to shift back to the star. "And I'm excited for the game next week in Dallas."

Contributing: ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer