OXNARD, Calif. — Jason Witten is going through drills as he prepares for his 16th season.
The tight end makes a routine grab on the sideline, near a large group of the Cowboys faithful in attendance.
“Welcome back, Witt,” one fan shouts to the former Monday Night Football analyst. Witten looks back, gives a quick thumbs up and then returns to work. It’s like he never left.
Witten, 37, retired from football in 2017 after 15 years with the Cowboys. He’s the best tight end in the franchise’s illustrious history, standing as its all-time leader in receptions (1,152) and receiving yards (12,448).
In 2019, Witten will have a slightly different challenge. Outside of returning from retirement, the Cowboys have a new offensive coordinator in 30-year-old Kellen Moore — who played with Witten from 2015 to 2017.
“He’s a pretty confident guy,” Witten said. “There’s a feel (to coaching), it’s just like you’re playing quarterback. I’m sure he had the same feel early on (as a quarterback).”
Moore displayed that confidence at practice last Wednesday when he called a flea-flicker — a trick play generally saved for special occasions.
“Kellen’s just dialing them up, man,” Witten said. “I think it’s just part of not knowing until you experience something. It’s part of the wrinkles. Kellen’s done a good job of adding things each day — yesterday it was a couple different things in the red zone, today it was a couple different plays. It’s just mixing different things into this system.”
Witten has already made a few big plays in the system. In the same practice, quarterback Dak Prescott found Witten on a deep pass play over the middle in 7-on-7s.
In Witten’s two seasons with Prescott (2016 and 2017), he had eight total touchdowns and 132 receptions. He made his 11th career Pro Bowl in 2017, which ranks second all-time among tight ends (Tony Gonzalez, 14).
After only practicing every other day for the first part of camp, Witten took the field for three straight days last week before the Cowboys’ preseason opener. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said they knew the third day would be a light practice — it ended in about an hour and a half — so they sent him out there.
Witten sat out of Dallas’ preseason game vs. the 49ers last week, despite his push to get back on the field.
“I can’t wait (to play a game). It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Witten said. “I don’t think I’ve forgotten what that feeling is like already, so just to get back out there, it’s a lot of excitement.”
While Witten said he attacks every practice as if it’s a game, there’s no replicating the real thing. And even though one can argue a preseason game isn’t the “real thing,” it makes no difference for the future Hall of Famer.
“It won’t change,” Witten said when asked how he’ll approach preseason games. “Fingers are tapped up, shoulder pads are on, we’ll be talking some trash. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
Whether or not Witten suits up this preseason is still unclear, but he should see a lot of action in Moore’s new offense if he does. Backup tight end Blake Jarwin started the first preseason game and led Dallas with four receptions for 51 yards. Witten has been the No. 1 tight end in practice, so he should get plenty of those targets.
The Cowboys’ second preseason game will be played in Honolulu, Hawaii vs. the Los Angeles Rams on NFL Network, Saturday at 10 p.m. ET.