OXNARD, Calif. — Jason Witten isn’t thinking about life after football as he goes through another training camp with the Cowboys, and one of his fellow tight ends hasn’t stopped to ponder a Dallas locker room without the 35-year-old on the verge of becoming the franchise leader in games.
None of this keeps Geoff Swaim from smiling in the middle of an answer when he realizes what he is saying about the first time he had a chance to be around one of just four players to reach 15 seasons with the storied Dallas franchise.
“I had been watching Witt since … since I was in like junior high,” said the 23-year-old Swaim, pausing with that sheepish grin, as if he knew he might be in trouble for finishing the thought.
“Watching a guy like that play for such a long time at a high level, it is a little overwhelming when you first get in the room and you’re talking football and you’re being coached up next to a guy that’s been doing it the right way.”
Well, at least Witten can consider himself part of the younger crowd Saturday, when he watches his 74-year-old boss — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After all, Witten will have a pretty strong case for that honor five years after he retires.
“I try not to let that creep in,” Witten said. “But I think I’d be lying to say that’s not one of the things that you hope as a player. That’s the highest honor, individually. Obviously we don’t play it for that. But individually, that’s what you hope you can be a part of.”
Witten will open the season needing two games to become the franchise leader with 225, topping pass rusher Ed “Too Tall” Jones from the 1970s and ’80s.
He’s already the club leader in consecutive games, starts, consecutive starts and catches — surpassing the likes of Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan and Michael Irvin. Lilly and Irvin are Hall of Famers.
With 11,888 yards receiving, Witten needs just 17 to top Irvin’s franchise record and is one of just two tight ends with at least 1,000 catches and 10,000 yards receiving (he has 1,089 catches). Tony Gonzalez, eligible for enshrinement in 2019, is the other.
“I don’t think there is any doubt in my mind that he’s a Hall of Fame tight end,” coach Jason Garrett said. “And he’s one of the best tight ends to ever play this game, and certainly the best of his generation in my view and such a complete player.”
Witten didn’t have any reason to think his career track would be different from quarterback Tony Romo after they joined the Cowboys together in 2003 and became best friends and a prolific pass-catch combination (649, almost twice that of the next receiver on Romo’s list).
But Romo injured his back in the preseason last year, and Dak Prescott took his job for good on his way to NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while leading Dallas to the top seed in the NFC at 13-3.
Witten embraced the change before his sixth loss in eight playoff games — to Green Bay at home in the divisional round, a defeat that caused him to pause briefly early in the offseason to make sure he wanted to keep playing.
He didn’t pause long, and he chuckles at the idea of “last man standing.” Romo and offensive lineman Doug Free retired in the offseason, as did DeMarcus Ware in Denver three years after the Cowboys cut their franchise sacks leader in a salary cap move.
“I think this year I was probably forced to reflect for the first time, three good friends in DeMarcus and Doug and of course Tony retiring,” said Witten, who in March signed a four-year extension that goes through 2021 but in reality is more of a year-to-year contract.
“And as I was reflecting, I was overwhelmed with joy knowing that this game provided relationships like that. In saying that, I’m also excited about the new bonds I’ve been able to form and grow with that.”
Swaim, who has a good chance to be Witten’s backup this year and possibly even his replacement when that time comes, is on that list.
“I’m definitely in the room with a Hall of Famer,” said Swaim, a seventh-round pick two years ago. “I don’t know of many people that would argue that. It’s pretty easy that he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. That’s not really a question.”
The topic is bound to come up this weekend.