Second-year TE becomes go-to guy

Fiercely prideful yet anything but prejudiced, Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys recognizes the quantum leap he made in 2004, Still, he's reluctant to acknowledge the new status to which the brilliant campaign catapulted him among NFL tight ends.

But think about this: It required two record-breaking performances last season, with Tony Gonzalez of Kansas City posting a new standard for most receptions by a tight end (102) and San Diego's Antonio Gates establishing the mark for touchdown receptions at the position (13), to somewhat overshadow Witten's breakout year.

Even if his performance was eclipsed by his fellow Pro Bowl performers, though, Witten certainly shined in '04.

Measured by any yardstick, and viewed through virtually any prism, Witten enjoyed one of the greatest, if least heralded, seasons ever for a tight end, with 87 catches for 980 yards and six touchdowns in only his second NFL year. Even for Witten, it has taken the quiet of the offseason to quantify how good those numbers were when stacked against the single-season bests of some of the premier tight ends in league history.

"Maybe because we had a disappointing year as a team, not going to the playoffs after getting there [in 2003], it was kind of hard to put it in perspective during the season," said Witten, the latest tight end to succeed in a Bill Parcells offense. "But when it's all over, and you have some time to sit back and really [assess] things, you realize, 'Hey, I guess that was pretty good,' you know?"

A review of Witten's "pretty good" season:

• With a franchise whose tight-end lineage includes standouts Mike Ditka, Billy Joe DuPree, Doug Cosbie and Jay Novacek, Witten established team single-season marks for receptions and receiving yards. Among league tight ends, only Gonzalez had more catches and more yards and Witten was only one catch shy of cracking the top 10 for most catches by a player at any position.

• In becoming the "go to" receiver for quarterback Vinny Testaverde, particularly in the middle of the field, Witten had 11 games with five or more catches and eight games in which he notched six receptions or more. His per-catch average improved by 1.4 yards over his rookie season and, at 11.3 yards, was fourth best in the NFL among tight ends with at least 40 receptions. More than half his catches resulted in first downs and, after having just one catch of 20 or more yards in 2003, Witten had 13 last season.

"He was like our Mr. Dependable," Testaverde said. "He has a great feel for coverages, where the soft spots are in the secondary, how to get some separation for himself."

• Witten's 87 catches are the 11th-most in NFL history for a tight end. Only five tight ends have ever caught more passes in a season than Witten. Two of them, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow, are in the Hall of Fame. Of the others, Gonzalez is a likely Hall of Fame member and Todd Christensen and Ben Coates were premier tight ends in their eras. The 87 catches are as many as another future Hall of Fame member, Shannon Sharpe, posted in his best season. Although such comparisons aren't quite equitable, because of the era in which they played, Ditka never had more than 75 receptions in a season and Hall of Famer John Mackey never topped 55 catches.

• His breakout performance, in which he more than doubled the output of his rookie year (37 catches, 347 yards and one touchdown), earned Witten his first Pro Bowl nod. Witten became the first Cowboys tight end since Novacek in 1995, and only the second in two decades, to land a Pro Bowl berth.

The Pro Bowl honor was especially gratifying for Witten for many reasons, not the least of which was the emotional phone call he made to his grandfather, Dave Rider, to inform him of the Hawaii trip. One of the most honored high school coaches in Tennessee, Rider essentially raised Witten and his two brothers, taking the boys and their mother into his home in Elizabethton, Tenn., after their father left them when Jason was 11 years old.

Witten has told the story frequently in Dallas of how his grandfather taught him even more about life than football, of how "Papaw" became a father figure and a role model, eventually walking away from his 39-year coaching career to tend to the upbringing of his three grandsons. Witten has called growing up without a father "the toughest thing" he has ever done but, with a nod toward Rider, "the best thing that ever happened to me."

"So when I called Papaw to tell him I had made the Pro Bowl, yeah, it was special, a really emotional thing," Witten said. "I felt like I earned it as much for him as for me. He might actually have been the more excited of the two of us. But it was kind of my way of saying, 'See what you've helped me do.' It really was a gratifying thing."

Indeed, the Pro Bowl invitation, besides being gratifying and expensive (Witten took about eight family members to the game), represented validation and vindication, too.

During his 2002 junior season at Tennessee, Witten began soliciting assessments from NFL scouts and others about his potential standing in the 2003 draft, if he decided to forgo his final year of college eligibility. Rider urged his grandson to stay in school and complete his degree. Apprised by many, however, that he was likely the No. 1 tight end prospect, Witten went into the draft, where he plummeted all the way to the third round.

It wasn't bad enough that Witten fell through the first two rounds before his name was called. Especially galling to him was that four tight ends -- Dallas Clark (Indianapolis) in the first round, and Bennie Joppru (Houston) L.J. Smith (Philadelphia) and Teyo Johnson (Oakland) in the second round -- all went off the board ahead of him.

"Oh, I definitely was bitter about it for a while," Witten acknowledged. "I mean, me not being the first tight end [selected], that was hard, no doubt. But being the fifth one to go? It was a little insulting. And then I started thinking about where I was going to, and who I was going to play for, and I felt better about the situation. I mean, playing for Bill Parcells, being one of his guys, I understand now what that means."

Having a tight end lead the team in receptions is hardly a fluke, of course, for Parcells. In his four NFL head coaching tenures, Parcells has developed standout tight ends like Coates, Mark Bavaro, the underrated Zeke Mowatt and now Witten. Last year marked the eighth time in 17 seasons that a tight end led Parcells' team in receptions.

Notable, too, is the manner in which Witten has outdistanced the four tight ends selected ahead of him in the 2003 draft. The quartet has combined for 138 catches, 1,540 yards and 15 touchdowns. In two seasons, Witten alone has 122 catches, 1,327 yards and seven scores. His 122 catches are twice as many as the Philadelphia Eagles' Smith, the next most productive tight end of the bunch. The star-crossed Joppru, who tragically suffered a third straight season-ending injury this spring, has yet to appear in a game. Johnson has just 23 catches in two seasons. Clark will inherit the starting job in Indianapolis in 2005, now that the venerable Marcus Pollard has departed in free agency.

But while those other Class of '03 tight ends are still waiting to turn the corner, Witten is now in the fast lane at the position. Urged by Parcells to improve his yards-after-catch skills last offseason, Witten worked hard on that component of his game, and he also became a solid threat deep up the middle of the field. There were occasions in 2004, when opponents doubled the Cowboys' outside receivers, that Witten was able to use his deceptively good speed to beat the safety or strong-side linebacker up the seam.

And he has become capable of controlling the area between the hashes, like most Pro Bowl caliber tight ends do.

"First off, he's a big guy, strong enough to fight you off, to slap your hands away when you're checking him," said Philadelphia safety Michael Lewis, whose team surrendered 15 catches for 199 yards and two touchdowns to Witten in two games last season. "And if you don't respect his speed, he'll turn on you and get deep down the middle. He's going to be good for a long, long time."

And there should be, for sure, a long time in which Witten can be good. Having just turned 23 in May, he has been the youngest player on the Dallas roster in each of his first two seasons. As a rookie, Witten was the youngest player in the league in 2003.

Somewhere down the road, there is probably a coaching career in Witten's future, since he wouldn't mind following the same path as his grandfather. Both older brothers, Ryan and Shawn, have already begun down that path.

There is, though, a lot of football to be played before Witten begins tutoring others on how to play it. The way Jason Witten sees things, last year was more about foundation than fruition, a cornerstone on which to heap a lot more big seasons.

"I think I understand better now how the tight end can change the game," Witten said. "I know the position better, know myself better, am just so much more comfortable now with everything we're doing. The goals now are consistency, more big plays as both a pass catcher and a blocker, really solidifying myself as a good player. I guess the thing now is to show that last year was no [fluke], that people can expect those numbers from me every season now."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.