IRVING, Texas — Jason Witten had nearly as many drops as catches through three games this season, back when his side still hurt just about every time he moved because of a lacerated spleen.
The Dallas Cowboys tight end dismissed any suggestion that the injury had anything to do with an uncharacteristic case of stone hands. The seven-time Pro Bowler didn't really even want to say how long it took to feel normal again once he decided to play in the season opener just 23 days after getting hurt in a preseason game.
Coach Jason Garrett puts it somewhere around a month into the season, which is about the time Witten started a career-best stretch so prolific that he has two games to get the six catches needed to break Tony Gonzalez's tight end record of 102 in a season. Witten could get it Sunday at home against New Orleans (6-8).
"You know, we talked about him saying, `I'm playing in that Giant game,' after he had the lacerated spleen, and I'm thinking to myself, `This guy's crazy,'" Garrett said. "He wasn't quite himself for probably three or four weeks after that. I think we all saw that. And then for him to kind of, `OK, I'm feeling better now' and get back to what he's been doing, I think he's had a remarkable year."
Witten turned 30 in May, and once he made it through that opener against New York, it was easy to forget about the injury as he stumbled through two more games and reached Week 4 with five drops, four penalties and eight catches. Too old already? Hall of Fame career nearing an end?
Hardly. In the past 11 games, he has 89 catches for 847 yards and two touchdowns, including his first scoring hookup with Tony Romo in last weekend's 27-24 overtime win against Pittsburgh that put the Cowboys (8-6) in control of their playoff fate with two games left.
Witten reset his franchise record with 18 catches in a loss to the Giants in October, and a week later broke Michael Irvin's career Cowboys record of 750 receptions. With 793 catches, Witten is likely this year to join Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe as the only tight ends with 800, and he's third behind those two with 8,832 yards. Gonzalez set the single-season mark for catches in 2004.
"I have so much respect for the game and this position," Witten said. "To be able to be even thinking about passing that kind of record that's stood the course for almost 10 years by the greatest tight end that ever played, to break that, no question it's special. I think you're more proud of the body of work over the course of 10 years than you are just one season."
Witten was part of Bill Parcells' first Cowboys draft class in 2003. He played in 15 games, with seven starts, as a rookie, and missed the only game of his career with a broken jaw. Barring injury, he's about to complete his sixth straight season of starting every game.
That streak was in serious jeopardy after he took a hard blind-side hit on a broken play in a preseason game at Oakland. It was easy to rule him out for the opener after the diagnosis because the Cowboys started the season three days earlier than everyone else and had 10 days to get ready for Week 2.
Witten thought otherwise, even with his old-school former coach whispering in his ear about taking it easy during a phone call.
"He was like my dad: `Take care of yourself now. Be smart,'" said Witten, a bit bemused. "Remember, this guy, 10 years ago when I had the broken jaw, it didn't seem like that was the same response."
The Cowboys were just happy to have him on the field against the Giants, so some balky play and two catches for 10 yards didn't faze anyone. He four catches against the Seahawks, but had the same number of drops, then two catches again, this time for just 8 yards, against Tampa Bay.
Witten finally broke loose with 13 catches for 112 yards and a garbage-time touchdown from Kyle Orton in a blowout loss to the Bears.
"I've never thought, `Well, I'm about to taper off here, let's see if I can hang on,'" Witten said. "It's always been it gets higher every year. And going into this year, that's what it was."
With or without a lacerated spleen.