What Jason Witten's absence means

August, 23, 2012
8/23/12
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Some things don't demand much further explanation. For instance, if I say to you, "Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys would really miss tight end Jason Witten if his spleen injury keeps him out of the season opener 13 days from now against the New York Giants," you'd take that on faith. Of course they'd miss him. Witten is one of Romo's most consistently reliable targets and has been a vital part of the Cowboys' offense for years.

But our man Tim MacMahon out there at ESPNDallas.com has an interesting and somewhat detailed explanation of just how a Witten absence would affect things for the Cowboys, and specifically coach and offensive play-caller Jason Garrett:
Garrett loves operating out of two- and three- tight end sets. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys used more than one tight end on 53 percent of their offensive snaps last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL.

The Cowboys were especially effective with one running back and two tight ends on the field, a personnel package that can be used in a variety of formations because of Witten's versatility. They averaged 7.0 yards per play with "12" personnel last season, their best of any package they used at least 5 percent of the time.

How often can they do that against the Giants if Witten is in street clothes and Martellus Bennett is on the opposite sideline?

Fair point, Tim. The solution is likely, as Tim points out later in his post, to use that "21" personnel formation, which is one tight end and two running backs. They did sign fullback Lawrence Vickers to block for DeMarco Murray, so it's not as though they're not planning to go with that kind of alignment at all this season. My guess is they'll probably go to it far more than the 13 percent of the time they apparently did in 2011, whether Witten's on the field or not.

But that doesn't change the fact that Witten's absence (especially with Bennett, the blocking tight end, having left via free agency) will inhibit Garrett's ability to run his offense the way he would prefer. And I think, after last season, all Cowboys fans can agree that they don't want Garrett less comfortable calling plays.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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