Commentary

Jason Witten is a mental mess

Cowboys' top tight end can't seem to shake spleen injury from his mind

Updated: September 25, 2012, 1:03 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Who is that impostor wearing No. 82? Where the heck is Jason Witten?

That can't be the real Witten, right?

[+] EnlargeJason Witten
AP Photo/LM OteroCowboys tight end Jason Witten had three more dropped passes and only two receptions Sunday against Tampa Bay.

There's no way Witten would drop as many balls as he caught over a two-week period. There's no way the third most productive pass-catching tight end in NFL history would have more penalty yards than receiving yards in two of the first three games this season.

And there definitely is no way that Witten, the epitome of a stand-up dude throughout his decade-long career, would hide from the media after a tough day at the office.

Wrong.

Bad got worse for Witten during the Dallas Cowboys' ugly win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His three-drop day during last week's stinker in Seattle can no longer be considered the poorest performance of Witten's career.

Witten one-downed that with an absolutely dreadful outing Sunday, when he had more drops (three) and as many false starts (two) as he did receptions. (Quick disclaimer: A more lenient judge wouldn't give Witten a drop for him failing to come down to a pass that was a little high and behind him on a crossing route, but he's made that play plenty of times.) And Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett tossed Witten aside like he was a lightweight en route to lighting up Tony Romo for a sack and forced fumble.

Maybe Bennett's brother, ol' Marty B, sent some of his Martian buddies to steal Witten's superpowers after the ex-Cowboys backup signed with the NFC East rival New York Giants.

Got any other explanations that make sense for a potential Hall of Famer playing this horribly?

Witten apparently doesn't. If he did, he wouldn't have bolted for the back door as soon as the locker room was opened for the media, sending a member of the equipment staff to get his clothes and leaving others to answer for him.

One theory is that Father Time has run the 30-year-old down from behind. But it's not like Witten, who has never been known for blazing speed, has struggled to get open. There weren't any defenders in the picture when he dropped potential touchdown passes down the seam against the Seahawks and Buccaneers.

And it's not like hands deteriorate as a dude gets older.

A lot of amateur psychologists wonder whether Witten is spooked after his spleen was lacerated by a vicious hit from Oakland Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain in the preseason opener. Yet Witten held on to the ball when he got blown up twice in Seattle and hasn't been hit hard on any of his drops.

And the spleen isn't connected to the hands. (I'll admit I had to look up the location of the spleen when Witten's got lacerated.)

None of Witten's teammates will acknowledge any concerns that the glue of their offense can't get the job done anymore. Romo, Witten's best buddy, tries to dismiss doubts by saying, "He's been so good for so long that a play doesn't define him."

Of course, this is much more than a play. Witten leads the league in drops this season and isn't in the top 100 in receiving yards.

As long as we're being honest, let's point out that Witten has played poorly in every game this season. He might have made an inspirational impact in the season opener, but Witten had two catches, two penalties and one drop in that win over the Giants.

"I'm not making excuses for him, but there was a stretch of four weeks there in training camp where he didn't practice," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He gutted it out in a really heroic effort against the Giants, playing after not practicing, and I think he's just still getting his feet up underneath him. He's had six practices since then and I think he's just trying to get himself back in rhythm."

OK, but the Witten we know can wake up in the middle of a summer night and catch the ball.

My diagnosis from the press box: Witten is a mental mess. He's pressing. He's fighting the ball.

Maybe the spleen injury, literally a life-threatening situation, is making itself a nuisance in the back of his mind. His football career probably flashed before his eyes. Perhaps he feels like the weight of the football world is on his shoulders with only one playoff win he can claim and a window that's getting tighter by the day.

Whatever it is, Witten ain't right.

And the Cowboys need him. Without Witten playing up to his standards, this offense isn't any good. Witness the Cowboys being tied for the dishonor of being the lowest-scoring offense in the league through three weeks.

"We in no way are going to do anything that doesn't give Witten all the chances we can give him," Jerry Jones said. The owner/GM and head coach are actually on the same page about this issue.

My suggestion: Witten needs to meet with Don Kalkstein this week. That's the sports psychologist for the Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers, and Kalkstein ought to be able to squeeze in Witten with NBA training camps yet to open and the Rangers about to wrap up another American League West title.

The hands aren't connected to the spleen, but in Witten's case, it looks like they are connected to his head.

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