Dallas Cowboys: Tony Gonzalez

Dallas Cowboys Preseason Live

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
9:00
AM ET
Welcome to Dallas Cowboys training camp! ESPN.com Cowboys reporters Todd Archer and Tim MacMahon have live updates and the latest news from Oxnard, California.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
12:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss Jason Witten, the Cowboys' draft plans and who gets the next big deal from the club.

Remember to look for Part 2 on Saturday. And if you have questions, send them to me via Twitter (@toddarcher:) and use the #cowboysmail hashtag.

Away we go:
.

NFLN survey/most respected: Cowboys

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
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IRVING, Texas -- With all that Peyton Manning has accomplished in his career with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, there is no doubt why he is the most respected player in the NFL, according to an anonymous survey of 320 players conducted by ESPN.

Witten
Closer to home, there is no doubt Jason Witten is the Dallas Cowboys' most respected player.

Witten earned five votes in the league tally. DeMarcus Ware earned three.

In 11 seasons, Witten is the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. He is second to Michael Irvin in receiving yards in franchise history. Only Tony Gonzalez has more catches as a tight end in NFL history. By next season he should pass Shannon Sharpe for second place in most yards all-time by a tight end. He set a record for catches in a season by a tight end with 110 in 2012. He has been named to the Pro Bowl eight times. He could make his ninth trip depending on the outcome of Sunday's conference title games.

With Witten, however, it is more than just numbers. It is physical and mental toughness. It is dedication. It is a belief in doing things the right way. He has missed only one game in his career despite numerous injuries, including a ruptured spleen in 2012. He does not miss offseason workouts.

"He's a great football player," coach Jason Garrett said after the season-ending loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. "He's the best tight end in football and has been for 10 years. He's just a helluva player, as special a guy as I've ever been around. He just is a unique individual. It's no surprise to me or any of us that he played as well as he did in this big game for us. That's what he's done his whole life. He's a great example to his teammates, a great example to his coaches about how to do things and I love him.

"I love him to death. He just does things the right way. He puts more into this than anybody I know. His commitment is as strong as anybody' and it's just disappointing for him. Again, he can walk out of the locker room with his head high and shoulders back because he does [it] the right way and he's done it the right way for a long time. He's going to be a Hall of Fame player and he's a Hall of Fame individual as well."

Five Wonders: Quick decision on staff?

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
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IRVING, Texas -- For the next six or seven months the Dallas Cowboys will be wondering about the plays that could have made the difference in finishing 8-8 for the third straight year or making the playoffs.

We're just wondering about five things in the end-of-season installment of Five Wonders:

Away we go:
  • I wonder if the Cowboys make quick decisions in regards to their coaching staff. The decision to fire Rob Ryan last year came 11 days after the season ended. With six teams looking for head coaches, the Cowboys would be wise to make any moves sooner rather than later. A lot of times the search for assistant coaches becomes a game of musical chairs. They often just switch golf shirts and gym shorts. You don't want to be the last team looking for assistant coaches with the top choices already scooped up. And as a mini-wonder inside a wonder, I wonder if Jason Garrett's future could make it hard for the most sought after assistants to say yes. Would they be willing to come to Dallas with a head coach that will be on the hot seat and possibly in the final year of his deal or go to a more stable job -- and one with less stature -- than the Cowboys?
  • I wonder if Jason Witten will end up with the same cruel fate as Tony Gonzalez. Witten will enter his 12th season with the Cowboys in 2014 and he is already the franchise leader in catches. He is second to Michael Irvin in receiving yards. Gonzalez is the only tight end in NFL history with more catches than Witten. By next season only Gonzalez will have more receiving yards as a tight end than Witten. Shannon Sharpe had 10,060 in his Hall of Fame career. Witten will enter 2014 with 9,799 yards. For all that Gonzalez accomplished he won only one playoff game in his career. That came last year with the Atlanta Falcons. He returned to the Falcons this year thinking he could go out on a Super Bowl run and they finished 4-12. For all that Witten has done, the Cowboys have won one playoff game. It has to be maddening for the eight-time Pro Bowler.
  • I wonder if the Cowboys wanted Tony Romo to have his back surgery sooner rather than later to make sure he is involved in the offseason program. Romo could not take part in the conditioning last year because of a procedure to remove a cyst from his back. If you remember, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Romo was “uniquely running mountains” in California the weeks before training camp to help his conditioning. It was among my favorite quotes of the season. He checked in at 236 pounds, the most he has ever weighed since joining the Cowboys. In 2012, Romo was listed at 230 pounds. In 2011, he was 227. The generally feeling is that Romo will need three months to recover from the back surgery. By having him ready for the conditioning program the Cowboys will be able to monitor Romo much better this spring and make sure he is in better shape when camp starts.
  • I wonder how much of an effect the new contract Robbie Gould signed with the Chicago Bears will impact any discussions the Cowboys have with their kicker, Dan Bailey. Gould signed a four-year deal with the Bears worth up to $15 million and included $9 million guaranteed. Bailey is set to be a restricted free agent. The Cowboys would likely place the second-round tender on him, which will be a little more than $2.1 million. The first-round tender would be close to $3 million. Gould is 31 and has a Pro Bowl to his credit. He has made 86 percent of his kicks in his career. Bailey turns 26 next month and had a Pro Bowl-type season though was not picked. He has made 90.8 percent of his kicks in his first three seasons and has missed two kicks in each of the past two seasons. He has been clutch. He has improved on kickoffs. Jason Garrett said Bailey might be the best at his job than any player the Cowboys have. The Cowboys bought out the free agent year of safety Barry Church last year with an extension and should do that with Bailey.
  • At the midway point of the season the Cowboys really had no idea what to do with Kyle Wilber. Injury forced them to play him at strong-side linebacker and I wonder if they found what could be a long-term answer at the position. In training camp and early in the season he had a number of chances to lay claim to extra playing time with all of the injuries on the defensive line but he was passed by George Selvie, Jarius Wynn and Everette Brown. Once he moved to linebacker, he performed well. He took the job with six games to go and could force Justin Durant out. If the Cowboys make a move on Durant it would save them $1.25 million in salary cap space in 2014. Wilber is set to make $570,000 next season. In a 4-3 scheme, the strong-side backer might be the least important position because of how much nickel defense is used. The nickel corner will play more snaps in a season than a strong-side linebacker with the way the game is played. Wilber performed well, was a good tackler, appeared to fit in well at the spot and was tough. Sometimes in personnel it's better to be lucky than good.

Witten a HOF player, individual, Garrett says

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
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ARLINGTON, Texas – Jason Witten was the last member of the Dallas Cowboys out of the locker room after Sunday’s 24-22 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. He walked with a limp to the elevator, and disappointment was etched all over his face. Moments after the game, he had sat at his locker with a towel draped over his head.

He did not speak after the game. What could he say that he had not said in 2011 and 2012 when the Cowboys got to Week 17 only to lose NFC East deciders to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins?

Witten
Witten caught a season-high 12 passes for 135 yards in the loss to the Eagles. He had a season-long 34-yard catch. He finished the season with 73 catches for 851 yards and eight touchdowns and was named a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. Only Tony Gonzalez has had more 70-catch seasons than Witten, who has eight, including seven in a row. He has had seven straight seasons with at least 800 yards, which is also second all-time among tight ends behind Gonzalez.

Yet as he looks to his 12th season, Witten has one playoff win.

“He’s a great football player,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s the best tight end in football and has been for 10 years. He’s just a helluva player, as special a guy as I’ve ever been around. He just is a unique individual. It’s no surprise to me or any of us that he played as well as he did in this big game for us. That’s what he’s done his whole life. He’s a great example to his teammates, a great example to his coaches about how to do things, and I love him.

“I love him to death. He just does things the right way. He puts more into this than anybody I know. His commitment is as strong as anybody’s and it’s just disappointing for him. Again, he can walk out of the locker room with his head high and shoulders back because he does [it] the right way and he’s done it the right way for a long time. He’s going to be a Hall of Fame player, and he’s a Hall of Fame individual as well.”

Sunday was the 171st straight game for Witten, tying him for third in team history. Only Dale Hellestrae (176) and Bob Lilly (196) have played in more consecutive games with the Cowboys.
It sounds crazy, but tight end Jason Witten has been an afterthought in the Dallas Cowboys' red-zone offense.

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Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly visit to give his thoughts on the Sean Lee extension, discuss who Jerry Jones should sign to an extension next and take a look at the other three teams in the NFC East.

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Witten has four seasons on his resume with more than 1,000 yards receiving and 90-plus receptions.

The eight-time Pro Bowler caught a NFL-record 110 catches for a tight end in 2012, and his 1,039 receiving yards tied for fourth-most in league history at that position.

But why can't Witten get targets in the red zone? He was targeted just once in 2012 and it resulted in a touchdown. Meanwhile, the top four red-zone scorers last season were tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski, Heath Miller, Kyle Rudolph and Tony Gonzalez. Dez Bryant led the Cowboys with three red-zone scores, tied for 18th in the NFL.

"That's something we talked about this year, more than ever," Witten said. "The field gets tight there, and I think part of it is we try to use Dez there with fades on one-on-one coverage. Offensively we just haven't done a good enough job putting points on the board and I'm apart of that. Hopefully I'll get more touches and opportunities, and that's something we worked on this offseason. I felt like in training camp we saw some results of that and I'm excited to see it carry over into the regular season."

Witten's responsibilities are different in the red zone. There are times where he has to help block a defensive end or outside linebacker and, by the time he releases into the field of play to become a target, quarterback Tony Romo has already gone through his progressions.

The Cowboys hope the offensive line improves in 2013 so Witten won't have to chip in as much. And with a focus on two tight-end sets, perhaps James Hanna or Gavin Escobar will block so Witten can become a target.

"That's part of it, trying to get the protection and then get laid out and attacking on the outside," Witten said. "That's just strategy that we've done. Tony has done a real good job the last couple of years with the protection, just finding receivers. You never want to take away from a team finding a way to score. At the same time, you want to maximize with the tight ends. There's a mismatch down there sometimes."
NFL Network ranks the Top 100 players every season.

PODCAST
Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the leaked Dallas Cowboys' draft board, Dez Bryant's relationship with Michael Jordan and if Jason Garrett's job will be safe if the Cowboys make the playoffs in 2013.

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Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten checks in at No. 41 on the list.

Witten is the first tight end to appear, ranking higher than Tony Gonzalez (47), Antonio Gates (73), Aaron Hernandez (77), Heath Miller (97) and Dennis Pitta (100).

Last season, Witten set a single-season record for a tight end with 110 catches. He also set a record for catches in a game with 18 against the New York Giants. He continues to be one of the elite players in the NFL, regardless of his position.

The next questions for the Cowboys are where Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware will be ranked.

Eli Manning ranked 43rd on the list. Is Romo higher?

What about Ware? He usually is near the Top 10, but injuries "slowed" him to an 11.5 sack season.

And there's Bryant, who emerged as a force with 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. Where do you place Bryant, who was third among receivers in touchdown catches?


GRAPEVINE, Texas – Jason Witten will welcome second-round tight end Gavin Escobar to the Cowboys, just as the eight-time Pro Bowler did with Anthony Fasano and Martellus Bennett.

PODCAST
ESPN Insider Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the latest Cowboys news, including Jason Garrett downplaying Tony Romo's involvement in offensive planning and play calling.

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But Witten isn’t anywhere near the point of being ready to pass the baton as the Cowboys’ primary tight end. To the contrary, the 31-year-old Witten considers himself in the middle of his prime after catching a career-high 110 passes last season.

“I felt like last year, once I got past the first couple of games, was probably my best year that I’ve had – not just because of the catches, because of the blocking and all-around,” Witten said between holes at the Cowboys’ golf tournament. “I feel really good. It sounds like we’re going to change our identity a little bit with the two-tight end sets a little more, but I feel good.

“I don’t know that I’d put a timetable on this amount of years, but I do feel that there’s nobody that’s probably more honest with themselves with where I’m at. Physically, I feel good.”

It isn’t hard to find an example of a pass-catching tight end producing deep into his 30s. Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez joined Witten at the Pro Bowl at the tender age of 36 last season.

“You’ve got to be careful to compare yourself with him,” Witten said. “You’re talking about probably the best tight end to ever play, but I do think this is a position where you talk about being in the right spot, position, leverage, awareness. All of those things go into it. If you ever lose a step, like Tony has, you still can be very productive. It’s not so much about that as it is creating those mismatches. That’s something I take a lot of pride in.

“Obviously, I have good chemistry with Tony (Romo) with that. I don’t view (drafting Escobar) as a motion of, ‘Hey, you’re slowing down,’ or ‘There’s only a couple more (years). You’re hanging on.’ The peak is still right there.”

Witten’s humility is swell and all, but there aren’t too many tight ends you can compare him to. His 806 catches and 8,948 yards rank behind only Gonzalez and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe in NFL history, and Witten should surpass Sharpe in receptions (815) and could catch him in yards (10,060) this season.

Witten hopes he doesn’t have to follow the late-career paths of Gonzalez and Sharpe, who left the franchises that drafted and developed them to play for contenders elsewhere. Witten wants to spend his entire career playing for the Cowboys.

“I couldn’t imagine any other way,” Witten said. “You’re so invested in it. I think you evaluate that as you go, but obviously my loyalty is here. You’re invested here. At this point in my career, everything that motivates me every day is all about, ‘How can I help to bring a trophy here?’ Not only just for the organization, but for the people inside of it. We’ve been through the trenches together. You want to be a part of that.

“I feel that way, but you never say never in any situation. But this is where I want to be and would like to finish out my career right here.”

What Went Right, No. 3: Jason Witten

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
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Our five-part series on what went right and what went wrong for the Cowboys continues with No. 3:

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Witten’s season started unlike any he had in his career and ended with him catching more passes in a season than any other tight end in NFL history.

Jason Witten
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireAfter suffering a lacerated spleen in the preseason opener, Jason Witten was on the field when the regular season began and proceeded to set an NFL single-season record for receptions by a tight end (110).
Along the way, he also became the Cowboys’ all-time leader in receptions and was named to the Pro Bowl.

But Witten’s season was nearly over before it could begin because of a lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason opener against Oakland. He returned sooner than anybody expected to play in the season opener against the Giants but caught just two passes for 10 yards.

He did not look like the same player through the first three weeks of the season, but then he caught 13 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown against Chicago. Three weeks later, he caught 18 passes for 167 yards against the New York Giants.

Against Atlanta on Nov. 4, he passed Michael Irvin on the franchise’s reception list. He caught his 103rd pass of the season on Dec. 232 against New Orleans to surpass Tony Gonzalez’s record for catches by a tight end in a season.

He finished the season with 110 catches for 1,039 and three touchdowns.

DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten named to Pro Bowl

December, 26, 2012
12/26/12
6:17
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IRVING, Texas -- For the second straight year the Cowboys had only two players selected to the Pro Bowl, their fewest in back-to-back years since 2001-02.

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ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer joins Galloway & Company to talk about the Cowboys' upcoming game against the Redskins.

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Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware has been selected for the seventh straight year, and after a one-year hiatus tight end Jason Witten was picked for the eighth time.

Ware was selected as a starter with San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, and Witten was voted as a backup to Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.

How many Cowboys actually play in the Jan. 27, 2013, game in Honolulu is up for debate because Ware could need surgery on his right shoulder after the season and a couple of players could be added as injury replacements.

The Cowboys do not comment on what players are named as possible alternates.

Last year, Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff were named to the Pro Bowl.

Ware leads the Cowboys with 11.5 sacks and is closing on the team’s unofficial sack record of 114 held by Harvey Martin. The franchise’s official all-time sack leader is tied with Randy White with 111 sacks on the unofficial list.

“What an honor and privilege it is to be voted to the Pro Bowl by the fans, coaches and players around the league,” Ware said in a statement released by the team. “I know how difficult it is to make it to the game, and I appreciate the support from everyone. I look forward to not only representing the NFC, but also the entire Dallas Cowboys organization.”

Witten set an NFL record for catches by a tight end in a season with 103 and needs 17 yards for his fourth 1,000-yard season. He needs 12 catches Sunday at Washington to set the franchise’s season record for catches, currently held by Michael Irvin, who had 111 catches in 1995. Witten became the Cowboys’ all-time leading pass catcher Nov. 4 in Atlanta.

The only players in team history with more Pro Bowl selections for the Cowboys are Bob Lilly (11), Larry Allen (10), Mel Renfro (10) and White (nine). Emmitt Smith was also picked to play in eight.

“It is always an honor to get voted, especially when a portion of the vote comes from your peers around the league,” Witten said. “Ihave a lot of respect for this league and the players that make up this league. I know how many great players there are around the NFL, and to be selected is very humbling.”

Dez Bryant missed out on making his first Pro Bowl appearance despite a breakout season. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall, Victor Cruz of the New York Giants and Atlanta’s Julio Jones were named as the four receivers.

Bryant has 88 catches for 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season and has caught at least one TD pass in his last seven games. He has more catches and yards than Cruz and Jones and more touchdowns than Johnson and Marshall.

Even if he is added to the roster it is unlikely that Bryant would play in the all-star game because he needs surgery on his left index finger when the season ends.

Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer also missed out on a bid, despite a career-high 10 sacks and a team-leading 99 tackles. Ware was joined at the outside linebacker position by Smith and Green Bay’s Clay Matthews.

5 Wonders: Jason Witten's quiet record

December, 25, 2012
12/25/12
12:00
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IRVING, Texas -- Merry Christmas to everybody. On this day filled with wonder, we bring you the final regular-season installment of Five Wonders.

On Rudolph …

PODCAST
Coach Jason Garrett talks about the Cowboys' overtime loss to the Saints and Jason Witten's remarkable season.

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** I wonder if anybody has set a record as quietly as Jason Witten set Sunday. With his final catch he set an NFL record for catches by a tight end in a season with 103. Tony Gonzalez had 102 for Kansas City in 2004. Because it came in overtime and given the magnitude of the game, there was a brief mention on the digital board and an announcement. Counter that with Detroit’s Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season in which he was able to hand the ball to his dad and the crowd was able to make a big acknowledgment of the feat. Witten simply flipped the ball to the official and went back to business. The mark deserved more acclaim in the days that followed, not that Witten cared for any of the attention. It is, however, interesting to note. For all of the attention the Cowboys get nationally, somehow Witten seems to fall between the big headlines. Just an observation.

** If you’re wondering when Matt Johnson can play again, it won’t be this week. Johnson was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return Nov. 18 because of a hamstring injury. He can return to practice Friday but he would not be eligible to play in a game until the divisional round of the playoffs. Johnson’s rookie year has been a wash because of the hamstring injuries. The offseason should do him some good to get bigger and stronger, but the Cowboys won’t know what they have until next summer. Given Barry Church’s recovery from an Achilles’ tear and Johnson’s inexperience, the Cowboys face something of a dilemma at safety. They clearly believe Johnson has some real potential or they would not have kept him around all year the way they have, but they won’t know what he is. So go get a safety in free agency or draft one of the best safeties in the draft? Not really. To me, they can get by at safety especially with the resources they have at linebacker and cornerback.

** The Cowboys’ pro scouting department has done a nice job in finding players throughout the season that have come in and played a role on a team ravaged by injuries. I wonder if some of the guys they have added are keepers going forward. Start with Eric Frampton, who will be a free agent after the season. He was signed to be a special teams’ guy and has worked his way into a starting role in part because of injury. He would be a guy to bring back in 2013. I wonder if they take one-year looks at guys like Michael Coe, Charlie Peprah and Brian Schaefering too. Now, these guys aren’t top-end starters by any means, but good role players. You would like to be able to develop younger guys in these roles, but they could be doing enough to at least get a deal for 2013.

** I wonder how the Cowboys believe David Arkin will be a player one day. They have done everything possible to not play the 2011 fourth-round pick this season and yet he remains on the roster. Arkin has had chances in his first two training camps that a lot of players do not get afforded and he was unable to show he can play. Yet the Cowboys keep him. If they end up cutting him next August in camp, then they wasted time. Teams loathe to give up on offensive lineman and I’m sure everybody thought Doug Free was a bust after his first two seasons when he played only a couple of times. Like Free, Arkin is from a small school and those guys tend to take time to develop, but the Cowboys cannot afford to draft projects anymore. They need to get guys who are close to being ready to play.

** I wonder if enough people are noticing what Dan Bailey has done in his first two years. He is having the second-best two-year run by a Cowboys kicker in team history. His coach, Chris Boniol made 59 of 64 field goal tries in 1995-96, good for a 92.2% percentage. Bailey has made 60 of 67 kicks the last two seasons, including 28 of 30 this season, for a 90% make rate. (Yes, we rounded up from 89.5%). He has made a field goal in every game but one this season (at Seattle), and has delivered winning kicks against Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh this year. The guy is automatic and that means a lot with how many games in the NFL come down to big kicks.

Jason Witten closing in on more records

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
10:30
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CINCINNATI – With 11 catches in the final three games, Jason Witten will set the record for most receptions in a season by a tight end in NFL history.

PODCAST
Jason Witten talks about how the Cowboys' leadership handled the tragedy within the organization.

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Tony Gonzalez had 102 catches for Kansas City in 2004.

He needs 20 catches in the final three games to set the Cowboys’ single-season record. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin had 111 catches in 1995.

Witten had four catches for 62 yards in Sunday’s win at Cincinnati to give him 92 receptions for 880 yards on the season.

It is the fourth 90-catch season of Witten’s career, which is tied for sixth in NFL history. Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Torry Holt had six 90-catch seasons in their careers to share the mark.

Gonzalez also has four 90-catch seasons, which is the most for a tight end in NFL history.

Pro Bowl voters not looking at Cowboys

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
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IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys are looking at possibly having their fewest number of Pro Bowl representatives since 2002.

The only two players in the top five in the current fan voting are DeMarcus Ware, who is second among outside linebackers, and Jason Witten, who is fourth among tight ends.

The only Cowboy selected to the Pro Bowl in 2002 was defensive lineman La’Roi Glover on a team that finished 5-11. The Cowboys had two players picked for the game last season, in Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

Witten is second in the NFL in catches with 82 and is on pace to set a league record for catches in a season by a tight end. He is on pace for more than 1,000 yards but has scored only one touchdown. He trails Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.

Ware, who has played in the last six Pro Bowls, is fourth in the NFL in sacks with 10 and second in the conference. He trails Green Bay’s Clay Matthews in the fan vote.

What other Cowboy could warrant consideration? Maybe Anthony Spencer. Maybe Dez Bryant. Maybe Dan Bailey.

5 Wonders: Do draft needs push QB down list?

November, 20, 2012
11/20/12
10:30
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video

IRVING, Texas – It’s a short week with the Washington Redskins coming to Cowboys Stadium on Thursday at 3:15 p.m., but there is always time for Five Wonders:

** It’s never too early to talk about the draft, right? Well, it is for me, since we don’t know the players who will be available just yet. The influx of third-year sophomores and juniors changes everything when it comes to the draft. But let’s stick with positions. Offensive line has to be at the top, right? I don’t see how it couldn’t. What about cornerback with the impending departure of Mike Jenkins and the importance of that position? That would seem to be a priority pick. What if the Cowboys don’t keep Anthony Spencer? That moves up outside linebacker in the mix. They could use a wide receiver as well. How about a tight end? And you can never have enough defensive linemen. So here’s my point: I wonder if the drafting of the quarterback of the future has to wait a year? I’m not so sure it should because if you wait for the stars to align, then you’re in trouble, but this is a team that has a ton of needs going forward. Can they afford to take a quarterback early? And when I say early I mean in the top three rounds.

** Roster composition is something a general manager has to always keep in mind. They have to play the what-if game more than anybody else. I wonder if the Cowboys are paying a price for not playing the what-if game at offensive tackle. With Tyron Smith doubtful to start Thursday against Washington, the Cowboys will have Jermey Parnell make the first start of his career. Who’s the swing tackle? Well, the guess is that it will be Smith in a break-in-case-of-emergency situation only. The Cowboys kept only three tackles on the 53-man roster in Smith, Parnell and Doug Free. In a former life Derrick Dockery played some tackle, but he’s not that guy anymore. David Arkin was a tackle in college, but he’s not that guy anymore. I wonder if the Cowboys made a mistake in not keeping a developmental guy on the practice squad just for this kind of thing. Jeff Adams was among the team’s final cuts and by no means was he ready to play in an NFL game in September. But he did have to play a ton in the preseason at San Diego because of injuries and wasn’t bad until conditioning caught up with him. Having a guy like Adams or someone of his ilk, would have been a help on a week like this if Smith can’t dress for the game.

** Jason Witten is on pace for 117 catches this season, which would be a single-season record for a tight end in NFL history. Tony Gonzalez holds the mark with 102 catches. But Witten is averaging only 8.7 yards per catch, which would be a career low. He’s had only two games in which he has averaged at least 10 yards a catch this season. He is on pace for 1,018 yards. I wonder how much he is being affected by the offensive line woes. With Tony Romo having to get the ball out of his hands so quickly, Witten is running not only shorter routes but routes that do not lend themselves to a lot of run after the catch. Some might claim he is just slowing down and was never that good after the catch. I’m not buying that. His longest catch of the year was a 35-yarder at Baltimore in which he ran away from Ed Reed. He has the legs, but Romo just can’t trust the offensive line to hold up long enough for Witten to work the seams.

** I wonder if the Cowboys have any regrets on not signing veteran Montrae Holland in training camp. Of the three players they worked out in Oxnard, Calif., in August, Holland was the best. They settled for Derrick Dockery and Daniel Loper with Holland’s agent looking for incentive money should Holland become a starter. The Cowboys did not want to go there and passed. It’s hard to say Holland would have been an answer for this team since he has not signed with another team, but he did an adequate job in 2011. Dockery struggled against Cleveland. He does not bend as well as he used to and didn’t display much power. Would the Cowboys have been better off with Holland? Perhaps.

** Caleb McSurdy was the first to go because of a torn Achilles. Within two days of each other Danny Coale (anterior cruciate ligament) and Matt Johnson (hamstring) were next to go. The Cowboys’ 2012 draft class has not produced much beyond first rounder Morris Claiborne. Defensive end Tyrone Crawford, the third rounder, will have an opportunity in the final six weeks to show what he can do. Tight end James Hanna has gotten more offensive snaps lately but just no passes in his direction. Kyle Wilber has seen only spot duty on defense. Grading drafts immediately after players are picked in April is foolish and there are people who say you should wait a few years before deciding if a class was good or bad. I wonder if we’ll need to wait that long on this class. Johnson will be the key. The way the Cowboys waited and waited and waited for him to get healthy tells you they believe he has a bright future. They simply couldn’t hold the roster spot for him any longer. Now he gets time to get healthy and start all over again in 2013.
There's one philosophical approach the Cowboys can use Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons that gives them the best chance to win.

They must stop the run without using an eighth defender near the the line of scrimmage.
Michael Turner is a thick-thighed, punishing runner capable of punishing a defense. He's having an average season with 415 yards and a 3.8 average per carry, but his threat is what persuades teams to use a safety in run defense.

Do that, and it opens to Matt Ryan's passing game with tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

Ryan has had a 100-yard receiver or tight end in five of seven games.

The Cowboys rank 13th in NFL, yielding 104.7 yards per game, but they've done a solid job against the run for the most part.

Last week, they contained the Giants' running game without using Gerald Sensabaugh that much. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan needs a repeat of that.

This is a week for defensive ends Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher and nose guards Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent to control the line of scrimmage.

Do that, and the Cowboys have a shot to win. Fail to control Turner without using eight and the Falcons' receivers will have big days.

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