Witten striving for bigger, better things

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com

   Before last season, Jason Witten was out to prove himself.
   There was a disappointing feel at his Elizabethton home while he was watching the first part of the 2003 NFL Draft.
   Almost guaranteed anything near the top of the order, he fell to the third round, where he was caught by the Dallas Cowboys.
   At the end of the 2004 season, the three tight ends that were selected ahead of him trailed statistically, and none had as big of an impact as he did with his squad.
   Jason earned respect, and now he's just a few steps away from becoming one of the premier tight ends in the National Football League.
   Those steps are something he is willing to work towards. He proved that at the beginning of last season, when he began as the number two tight end on the Dallas roster.
   Jason had to compete with Dan Campbell at the beginning of the year for the Dallas starting position.
   "Dan's a great player and it's a situation where we kind of help one another out," Jason said. "It's been great playing with him, but the NFL is all about competing."
   A jaw injury sparked a solid late-season effort that saw him emerge as a fan favorite in the blue and silver.
   "I started out slow to get everything going," he said. "Then I came back and finished strong."
   You bet. After missing three weeks, Witten worked his way into the top spot at his position.
   In his first game back from injury, Witten made four grabs for 41 yards against the Arizona Cardinals. He backed that up, beginning in week 12 with six grabs for 49 yards against the eventual NFC Champion Carolina Panthers.
   He had over 35 yards receiving in each of his final four outings... not bad for a rookie.
   His first touchdown came on a 36-yard slant against the New York Giants during week 16, and he was third on the team's receiving charts in its wild-card playoff loss to the Panthers.
   The late-season surge was enough to earn him the tight-end slot on the NFL's All-Rookie Team.
   "The accolades were great, but I wanted to take it to the higher level," Witten said. "We had a good season and made the playoffs, and it's great playing for Bill Parcells. I hope I learn from it and continue to improve into next year."
   The All-SEC player at Tennessee finished with 35 grabs for 347 yards in the regular season for America's Team -- a good reason for the high expectations going into his second season.
   A recent ESPN Insider article listed him as one of ten second-year players that are expected to have a breakout season this fall.
   Dallas Morning News writer Tim Cowlishaw also mentioned on a recent episode of the popular ESPN series "Around The Horn" that he believed Jason would be one of the top five tight ends in the NFL this season.
   Then you have the constant comparisons to former Dallas tight end Jay Novacek, who was a big part of the team's success in the 1990s.
   "There's been some great tight ends here way back before us, and to be compared to them makes me want to work harder," Jason said. "I look at the guys Parcells has coached like Ben Coates, and then Jay Novacek, who used to play for this team. I've got big shoes to fill."
   Witten should get the chance to put up bigger numbers this next season with the help of new All-Pro teammate Keyshawn Johnson roaming the middle of the field at receiver alongside veteran Terry Glenn.
   Johnson played under Parcells with the New York Jets before stirring up controversy in Tampa Bay. The tight end believes he will be a good fit in Dallas.
   "It will be great (for our team). Keyshawn will add a big dimension to our offense. He's quick, big and physical, and he will help us out," Witten said. "Most people don't realize how great of a blocker he is."
   And Parcells, Witten has become one of his favorites on the team.
   The traditional Bill Parcells-coached teams have had a strong tight-end presence. That only encouraged Witten more as he found his place in the offense.
   "When I first got here I wasn't sure if I'd like him or not, but he's been great," Jason said. "Now that I've played for him, I wouldn't want to play for anyone else."
   "He's taking the organization back to where it used to be. He's had a great past with tight ends and I listen to his advice and work hard because he's going to put me in a situation like those guys."
   From Elizabethton to Knoxville, and now in Texas, Jason's hard work and dedication has been proven on the gridiron. That work ethic will only help him improve.
   The theme for Jason's second local football camp, "Dreams Do Come True" kind of sums up his career to this point.
   "It has. It says it all if you believe in that dream, even if you are coming from a small town," Witten said. "I worked hard to get where I am now. That says a lot for my career and my dream, which is playing in the NFL."