Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo targeted tight end Jason Witten 22 times of his 62 throws on Sunday against the New York Giants, which represents NFL season-high marks in each category. He’s not quite the NFL’s best tight end, but he’s close.
Witten caught 18 of those passes—also an NFL season-high—for an 81.8 percent conversion rate.
Those numbers, and similar stat lines produced by the Dallas QB/TE combo, are the result of years of trust built between the two players. Giants (and former Cowboys) tight end Martellus Bennett commented on their relationship to ESPNDallas.com earlier this month:
I think Romo is a great quarterback. And I think he’s done some great things for the Cowboys. But I just think his relationship with Witten is one of those special things they were able to build. Being here, I’ve just been trying to build the same thing with Eli.
Bennett played his final 47 games in Dallas without catching a single touchdown pass from Romo—or anyone else, for that matter.
In his four years with the Cowboys, Bennett totaled 846 yards in 60 games. Part of his lack of production had to do with Witten’s presence as the No. 1 tight end in the Dallas offense, but the New England Patriots showed us there can be more than enough to go around for two tight ends to thrive statistically.
Under those same conditions, Witten’s worst season in terms of receiving yardage from 2008-2011 (942 yards in 2011) was more productive than Bennett’s career with the Cowboys.
Witten is sure-handed, a load to tackle and a great blocker at the tight end position. The hesitation to name him the NFL’s best at the position—as a reaction to his Week 8 stats—revolves around his teammates and his use in the offense.
Witten has the benefit of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant drawing coverage away from him as primary targets, unlike the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco 49ers’ Vernon Davis.
Graham, Davis and (arguably) Gronkowski are the No. 1 targets in their respective offenses. Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons has been hyper-productive at the NFL level for a longer time than Witten and is still succeeding at 36 years of age.
Gronkowski holds the tight end record for touchdown receptions (17) and receiving yards (1,327) in a season. Graham caught 99 passes last year. Davis caught 10-for-180 yards and two touchdowns—including the game winning score—in the playoffs.
This is a guy who played through a lacerated spleen for the better part of the 2012 season’s first month. The toughness and professionalism exhibited by Witten is unsurpassed by any tight end today.
His productivity, however, is not unsurpassed.
He dropped five balls in the first three games—and then caught all 13 of his targets in Week 4.
He’s a great player and leader, but he isn’t the best tight end in the NFL today.