ARLINGTON _ Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten followed an unusual day on the football field _ three passes slipped through his hands, combined with two false-start penalties _ with an even more unusual step after the contest.
The Cowboys’ longtime team leader did not make himself available for post-game interviews, a rarity for the seven-time Pro Bowl performer.
So it was up to teammates, coaches and owner Jerry Jones to discuss the latest round of evidence Witten offered in efforts to show he has rehabilitated from a lacerated spleen that sidelined him for the brunt of the preseason.
Witten, normally the team’s most sure-handed receiver, entered the game tied for the NFL lead in dropped passes with Oakland’s Darren McFadden (four). Unofficially, he added three more to this total during Sunday’s 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay at Cowboys Stadium, including a potential 40-yard scoring strike on the final play of the third quarter.
Witten also had two of the team’s six false-start penalties and, along with offensive tackle Doug Free, missed a block on Tampa Bay defensive end Michael Bennett that led to a sack and lost fumble by quarterback Tony Romo during the third quarter. Bucs’ cornerback Eric Wright returned the ball into the Cowboys’ end zone but the play was blown dead by game officials, keeping the points off the board.
After a replay review awarded the ball to Tampa Bay, the Cowboys’ defense forced a punt. After the game, everyone in the Cowboys’ locker room expressed support of Witten despite his slow statistical start in 2012 (eight catches for 76 yards, and no TDs, through three games).
“I think Witten has probably got the fewest drops of about anybody we’ve ever had around here, so I’m not (concerned),” said Jones, adding that he considers his tight end close to being 100 percent healthy.
“I think he is,” Jones said. “So we in no way are going to do anything that doesn’t give Witten all the chances we can give him.”
Against Tampa, Witten was targeted for six passes. He caught two, covering eight yards. Over the past four seasons, STATS, Inc. has credited Witten with an average of just three drops per season _ or the same number of passes that eluded him Sunday.
The subpar numbers raise questions about whether Witten is at the top of his game physically.
“Yeah, it’s unusual. Most of the time, he goes a whole season without stuff like that,” said backup tight end John Phillips. “He’s coming back from the (spleen) deal, but he’s good mentally. He’s getting his body back in shape … He’s one of the best tight ends to ever play in this league. He’s going to bounce back fine.”
Romo agreed. He said one play, or one bad game, does not define a player of Witten’s caliber.
“Jason has played at the highest of levels and he’s still playing that way,” Romo said. “If this is tough on Jason right now, he’s been so good for so long that a play doesn’t define anything for him."
_ Jimmy Burch