Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in Monday's preseason game against Oakland, putting his Week 1 availability very much in doubt.
The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler has a "very serious" small laceration that caused internal bleeding. The team said his spleen is not ruptured, but if his condition does not improve he may still require surgery which would sideline him indefinitely. For now, Witten will certainly miss the remainder of the preseason and there's a strong chance he will miss the Sept. 5 season-opener against the defending Super Bowl champion and NFC East rival New York Giants.
Witten suffered the injury on a hit from Raiders' linebacker Rolando McClain in the first quarter of Monday's game. Witten missed the next several plays, but eventually returned to the field and caught one more pass before the starters were removed from the game. A more thorough examination after the game disclosed the injury.
While the team waits to see if Witten's condition improves or gets worse over the next week or so, the Cowboys' offense will need to figure out what it's going to do without one of its top offensive playmakers. Since 2004, Witten has averaged 83 catches and 945 yards receiving a season. He’s also caught 40 touchdowns during that same eight-season span.
Witten, who has missed just one game in his entire career so far, is 55 receptions away from passing Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin to become the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver. Witten's 696 career catches are the third-most by a tight end in NFL history.
No one will miss Witten more than quarterback Tony Romo. Since 2006, when Romo became the Cowboys' starting quarterback, more than a quarter of his total completions (439 of 1,672) and 14 percent of his touchdown passes (21 of 149) have gone to Witten.
With Witten on the sidelines, Romo and the Cowboys' offense will turn to John Phillips as the starting tight end. Phillips, a four-year pro out of Virginia, played in all 16 games for the Cowboys in the 2009 and '11 seasons. He has caught a total of 22 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown in his brief career. Phillips didn't play in Monday's game as he has been limited by a sprained ankle.
The only other tight ends the Cowboys have on the roster currently are 2012 sixth-round pick James Hanna from Oklahoma, undrafted rookie Andrew Szczerba (Penn State) and Harry Flaherty, who was added as a result of Witten's injury. Hanna and Szczerba both caught passes on Monday night, but clearly they nor Phillips are near as established or feared as Witten. The team also may decide to bring in another veteran tight end at some point, depending on how Hanna and Szczerba respond to taking on larger roles in the offense.
And speaking of the Cowboys' offense, expect to see some changes in how head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan employ the passing attack. The onus is now on receivers Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, etc., as well as running backs DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones to step up their production in Witten's absence. Romo also will need to show trust in his receivers and backs since he will be without his favorite target for the immediate future, if not longer.
FANTASY SPIN: Among tight ends, Witten finished the 2011 season tied for fifth in receptions (79) and third in receiving yards (942). Between his consistent production and obvious chemistry with Romo, Witten entered the season as a clear-cut top-10 fantasy tight end option, and was top-five according to some rankings. However, with the uncertainty surrounding his injury and how long it will keep him out, Witten should probably move down the list as players like Fred Davis, Jermichael Finley, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Pettigrew, and perhaps even Tony Gonzalez are currently safer options. For now, draft Witten with caution as there's a chance he could be out an extended period of time, especially if it's determined he will need surgery.
As far as the rest of the Cowboys' offense goes, ignore the tight end position until further notice, or at the very least, until one of other options shows some proof of production. The emphasis is now on the wide receivers and running backs, specifically to see if any of them can take advantage of Witten’s absence.
Romo attempted 522 passes last season, which was 11th among quarterbacks, with Witten being targeted for 117 of those. That was the most on the team and the fourth-most among tight ends. Assuming Dallas doesn’t change its offensive game plan drastically, it’s safe to assume that Witten’s targets will have to go elsewhere.
Bryant was the second-most targeted Cowboy in 2011 with 103, but he’s also yet to make it through a complete season without missing at least one game. Austin had more receiving yards (2,361) and touchdown catches (18) than Witten did in the 2009 and ’10 seasons combined, but hamstring injuries limited him to just 10 games last season. If he’s healthy, he should be considered the lead contender to become Romo’s favorite target.
It’s not a stretch to expect both Bryant and Austin’s numbers to go up at least slightly as long as Witten is sidelined. However, the greatest opportunity exists for whoever wins the No. 3 receiver job, whether that is Ogletree, Harris or someone else.
Remember, last year it was Laurent Robinson, not Bryant or Austin or even Witten, who led the Cowboys in touchdown catches with 11. Robinson took full advantage of Austin’s injuries to break out for 54 receptions, 858 yards receiving and a tie for the fourth-most touchdown catches in the league. Robinson parlayed his breakthrough season into a five-year, $32.5 million contract that he signed with Jacksonville as a free agent this offseason.
Even if Austin and Bryant stay healthy, which is no guarantee, Witten’s absence probably means the Cowboys will run even more three- and four-wide receiver sets than they normally would. With Robinson off to the Jaguars, the opportunity is clearly there for one of the other Cowboy receivers to step up and establish themselves.
Robinson was one of fantasy’s biggest sleepers and surprises last season. For now, it appears the pieces are all there for a repeat performance by another unknown Cowboy receiver in 2012. The question is which one and will you be paying close enough attention to pounce when the time is right.
— By Mark Ross, published on August 16, 2012