Witten is leaving ESPN’s Monday Night Football and returning to the playing field less than a year after announcing his retirement. Sources told ESPN that the tight end is getting a one-year deal worth $3.5 million that can max out at $5 million, including roster bonuses and incentives.
Witten has played in 11 Pro Bowls during his 15 years with the Cowboys, becoming the franchise leader with 1,152 receptions, which ranks fourth in NFL history, and 12,448 receiving yards. He also holds franchise records for games played (239), consecutive games (236), starts (229) and consecutive starts (179).
In returning, he also will have the longest service time with the organization at 16 years.
“The fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong,” Witten, who will turn 37 in May, said in a statement. “This team has a great group of rising young stars, and I want to help them make a run at a championship. This was completely my decision, and I am very comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to getting back in the dirt.”
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, there are some in the Cowboys’ organization who have long considered Witten as an NFL head-coaching candidate — and this move could help serve as the bridge to his coaching career.
Before joining ESPN in May, Witten went back and forth on a decision to leave the game until ultimately signing a four-year deal with the network. There were some rough patches during his first year as an analyst, which he acknowledged, but he felt there was growth as well.
“I’ve known for about 10 to 14 days that he was seriously deliberating this,” Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Thursday. “As you know, when Jason retired last year, he had a real difficult decision. He obviously missed it. I’ve never seen anybody really embrace the physical part of football like Jason. He missed that. The rougher it is, the better.
“We’re happy to have him. We think he can still play and he thinks he can still play.”
Jones said he expects Witten to be more than a “situational player” for the Cowboys in 2019.
“I think he’ll play more than that,” Jones said. “This is a big thing to him. He wants to be out there, and he will be out there this year.”
There were discussions about Witten’s potential return to the playing field during last season, but he remained in the booth.
“We thank Jason for his many contributions to Monday Night Football and to ESPN over the past year and wish him continued success,” ESPN said in a statement. “We have seen many former coaches and players go into broadcasting before eventually returning to the game they love, so we understand Jason’s desire to return to the Dallas Cowboys.”
In the statement, ESPN said it would determine next season’s plans for Monday Night Football in the coming weeks.
Welcome baaaaack @JasonWitten
— Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41) February 28, 2019
— D-Ware (@DeMarcusWare) February 28, 2019
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he was excited about Witten’s return.
“I know he thought about the decision to go do Monday Night Football. He thought about it long and hard. It was a very heart-felt decision,” Garrett told reporters Thursday. “I don’t think it was an easy decision for him. It was such a great opportunity. … But in the long conversations we had before he made that decision, I knew he still loved to play football. There is no question in my mind he can still play at a high level.
“When he was away from it, he continued to realize that and understand that. He just decided to make this decision because he still loves the game and wanted to be a part of it.”
When he presented the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award to Wisconsin‘s D’Cota Dixon on Feb. 12, Witten was asked if he would return to the field and said, “I don’t think we’re going to. … I don’t know where that is.”
But he acknowledged he “missed the heck out of playing.”
“Look, every day I was a part of the Cowboys, and even before that, I loved the game of football. I loved the process of it,” Witten said. “I loved March. I loved training camp. I loved getting better and adversity and going through it with [the] guys, that shared commitment part of it. Nothing can replace that feeling and I knew that.”
His decision to return, according to sources, stemmed from his feeling that he had more to give as a player rather than any unhappiness with television. It also resets the clock for a possible selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 2017, Witten caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns and was added to the Pro Bowl as a first alternate.
Witten played almost every snap for most of his career, but he returns knowing he will be in a different role in 2019, serving as a mentor.
Without Witten, Cowboys tight ends ranked 20th in the NFL last season for receiving yards (710) and touchdowns (4).
The Cowboys drafted Dalton Schultz in the fourth round last year and saw him start seven games after Geoff Swaim went down with a broken wrist. Blake Jarwin led the Cowboys’ tight ends with 27 catches in 2018 for 307 yards and three touchdowns. While Swaim is set to be an unrestricted free agent, the Cowboys also have Rico Gathers under contract and could look to the draft for a long-term answer at the position.
Witten’s return also provides a security blanket for Dak Prescott, who ranks third among NFL quarterbacks with a 73.7 completion percentage to tight ends over the past three seasons. Prescott also was sacked 56 times last season, the second most in the league.
“Wow, that is surprising, but ‘Wit’ is a good leader,” defensive end Taco Charlton told ESPN’s Josina Anderson when notified of Witten’s return. “I enjoyed being around him. He is dependable … and I know our team will be happy to have him back.”
Witten has remained in decent shape, if not football shape. He regularly was named one of the team’s top performers in the offseason program, and those around Witten believe he can regain his strength rather quickly.
“I just think he’s a football player,” Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin said. “I can’t speak for him, but when you’re still around football and not playing, I’m sure he wondered about [playing]. He’s the ultimate competitor. If he felt he had something left in him to play, he was going to do everything he could to get the most out of it.”