Tight ends share mutual admiration

IRVING, Texas -- So much about Jason Witten and Antonio Gates screams different.

Witten grew up in Elizabethton, Tenn., groomed to play football by his grandfather. Gates grew up in Detroit as heralded in basketball as he was in football, first choosing Michigan State to play both sports before transferring to Kent State where he starred in basketball.

Witten's success is often tied to a work ethic that undermines his athleticism. Gates' success is often tied to an athleticism that undermines just how hard he works.

In 2003, Witten was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the third round, much lower than he thought he would go after leaving school early. Gates, who had not played football in five years, was not drafted at all and signed with the San Diego Chargers.

About to enter their ninth seasons in the NFL, Witten and Gates are different, but their on-field accomplishments cannot be more similar.

And there is no doubt they are the two best tight ends in the game today.

Both have been named to seven Pro Bowls. Gates has been named All-Pro three times, Witten twice. Since 2003, Witten has 617 catches to Gates' 529, Gates has 7,005 yards to Witten's 6,967 and Gates has 381 first downs to Witten's 342.

For the past two days at Valley Ranch and Cowboys Stadium, Witten and Gates have worked on opposite sides with precision so maddening that defensive backs and linebackers had little chance to defend either.

"We came in the same year and we're in the same system, and every year we're right there with each other," Witten said. "It's not that we're competing against each other, but in some ways you are because your standard is to be the best. There's such a respect there and a bond there because we know the challenges we're going through week in and week out."

They talk on the phone from time to time but mostly communicate through text messages. Every year at the Pro Bowl, they get together and compare notes. They see each other at the Final Four and talk as well.

"What he means to that offense, he tries to do whatever it takes to be successful," Gates said of Witten. "That's what I try to do. Our games are not the same in all aspects of how we play. I do a lot of standing up, spread out, wide flex. He's more in a three-point stance. He has the ability to do that, but at the same time, once you game plan for the Cowboys and game plan for the Chargers, I think you understand these guys have tight ends that make plays, and that's the common denominator."

Gates is more the receiving tight end, but Witten's 42 receptions of at least 25 yards are second to Gates among tight ends the past nine seasons. Witten is the better blocker, but Gates helped LaDainian Tomlinson rush for 1,000 yards every year from 2003 to '08.

In attempting to get Witten more involved in the red zone, the Cowboys looked at how the Chargers used Gates. Witten responded with a career-high nine touchdown catches in 2010.

"I think part of it is having trust and making plays," Witten said. "Everything is tight down there, so a big body helps, but it's that trust you see on tape that allows everybody to feel more confident. The success he's had and the ability to continue to do that, you respect it but you want to peek at the film and see how he does it."

Gates is sometimes surprised by the number of catches Witten will have in a season. Gates has never had more than 89 in a season. Witten has three seasons with at least 90 catches.

"You have to go out and be who you are and have an impact on the game as much as you can," Gates said. "I'll look up, and he'll catch 10 balls. I'm more a 13-yard, down the field, run-after-catch guy. That's where we're different. But at the same time, I respect what he's done in the past and I love what he's doing now, just being a mentor to all the guys coming into the league. We came in the same year, so we've definitely set a standard for how this position is supposed to be played."

Witten and Gates have done it in different ways with similar results, and they might end up in the same place one day: the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.