When really great players reach a certain point in their careers, the conversation ultimately turns to their legacy: Where they stand all-time, whether they should wind up in the hall of fame, and how they stand up to the greatest players ever at their position.
As Cowboys tight end Jason Witten enters his 15th NFL season, these conversations are taking place about him.
Witten’s off-field contributions to the community have been so renowned that he was named the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2012, and his reputation as a man is impeccable. His status as a leader in the Cowboys locker room has been unquestioned for at least a decade, and in 2016 when a recently drafted Ezekiel Elliott reached out to former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray for advice on how to maximize his opportunity in Dallas, he was told, “do exactly what Jason Witten does.”
As a player, Witten has been perhaps one of the most consistent of his era, catching more than 60 passes for at least 670 yards in every season since 2004. He has played through multiple lower-body injuries and even a ruptured spleen, and has missed one game in his entire career — when a broken jaw prevented him from eating solid foods during his rookie season of 2003 and he failed to meet coach Bill Parcells’ weight requirement.
Witten’s career stat line — 213 starts in 223 games, 1,089 catches on 1,533 targets for 11,888 yards and 63 touchdowns — are among the best ever for a tight end, but even that does not tell the whole story. In his time in Dallas he has been a key blocker for the league’s leading rusher twice and has always taken pride in being the complete tight end.
Tony Gonzalez’s career compares closely to that of Witten. Gonzalez played 17 NFL seasons, missed only two games, recorded over 60 catches every season for 15 consecutive seasons (1999-2013) and had at least 650 yards every season in that period as well.
These are clearly two of the greats of their generation. Each had extremely long careers, played and started almost every game in their career, spent multiple seasons as a primary pass catching option in explosive offenses, and were blockers for league leading rushers.
Overall I think it is safe to say that Gonzalez was a more explosive receiver, and a better red-zone receiver, with 111 touchdowns to Witten’s 63. But Witten has more consistently been a true in-line Y tight end who takes pride in his blocking.
When comparing two truly great players at the same position, it’s always going to be difficult to determine discernible differences in their legacies. In this case, we are comparing two certain Pro Football Hall of Famers, who played one of the positions with the most variation in assignment from team to team and play to play. Gonzalez’s red-zone prowess definitely exceeds Witten’s, but Witten’s abilities at every phase of the position make him the superior player.