FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Jason Witten never even hinted that his 15th season with the Dallas Cowboys would be the tight end’s last, suggesting as recently as two weeks ago he intended to return.
An offer from ESPN was too good to pass up.
A person with knowledge of the decision said Witten informed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Thursday that he is retiring, choosing a role as lead analyst on “Monday Night Football” over standing alone as the longest-tenured player in the storied history of the franchise.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the decision hasn’t been announced. Witten informed the team six days after ESPN’s website cited sources it didn’t identify in revealing Witten’s plan.
The team announced a news conference for Thursday afternoon with Witten, Jones and coach Jason Garrett, but didn’t specify a topic.
His move comes a year after friend and longtime teammate Tony Romo retired as the Cowboys’ all-time passing leader to become the lead analyst at CBS.
This one was different, though. The Cowboys were anticipating a 16th season from Witten — and 15th straight as their starter. Last year, Romo had lost his job to Dak Prescott while injured and was deciding whether to continue his career with another team.
The Cowboys released Romo the same day of his CBS announcement in April 2017. After joining Dallas together in 2003, the pair never made it to the Super Bowl or an NFC championship game.
“There’s not always a fairy-tale end,” Witten said near the end of last season. “I realize that.”
Just days from turning 36, Witten walks away as the leader in games, catches and yards receiving for a franchise with five Super Bowl wins, but none since the 1995 season.
Tony Gonzalez and Witten are the only tight ends in NFL history with at least 1,000 catches and 10,000 yards. Gonzalez is eligible for Pro Football Hall of Fame induction for the first time next year, which should be a good barometer for Witten’s chances.
Witten, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, is tied with defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones, safety Bill Bates and the late offensive lineman Mark Tuinei for most seasons by a Dallas player.
The decision by Witten means the lead analyst job at three networks covering the NFL will be held by former players who spent their entire careers with the Cowboys. The other is Fox’s Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls as quarterback in the 1990s.
The only Monday night game for the Cowboys is Nov. 5 at home against the Tennessee Titans.
While fighting back tears at times after the Cowboys were eliminated from playoff contention for yet another disappointing finish last season, Witten seemed intent on playing a 16th season.
Asked more recently about a report he had auditioned with ESPN, Witten went so far as to say he might play until he was 40 and declaring “absolutely” that he planned to return.
Less than two weeks later, he disappeared to ponder his future and let Jones address the ESPN report during a news conference that was supposed to be the introduction of first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch. The owner said the Cowboys were waiting for Witten to decide his future.
“I’ve lived a dream here the last 15 years with this organization, great ownership, great coaches and great opportunity,” Witten said during one of his emotional moments after a Week 16 loss to Seattle last December that eliminated the Cowboys. “Disappointed we couldn’t get it done this year.”
While Witten is the only Dallas player with 1,000 catches (1,152), his career was defined more by durability and toughness than flashy stats. The 11-time Pro Bowler holds the Dallas record for consecutive games played and starts. His iconic moment came in 2007 when he ran nearly 30 yards and was tackled without a helmet after it was knocked off in a collision with two defenders. Witten only missed one game, the fifth of his career in 2003 because of a broken jaw.
When the team opened its new practice facility in 2016, a huge picture of Witten from that play hung over the players’ entrance to the indoor practice field. It was the sort of gesture usually reserved for retired players. Witten spent two seasons walking under it.
In addition to 12,448 yards receiving, Witten is third on the Cowboys’ all-time list with 68 touchdown catches. He trails Dez Bryant, who was released last month with 73 TDs, and Hall of Famer Bob Hayes (71).
Without Witten and Bryant, the Cowboys are missing their top two receivers from last year and essentially for the past six seasons.
Among the tight ends left behind, only one has a catch in a regular-season game: Geoff Swaim with nine over three seasons.
The Cowboys are high on Blake Jarwin and hope that former Baylor basketball player Rico Gathers can develop after missing his entire second season with a concussion. Dallas drafted Stanford’s Dalton Schultz in the fourth round last week.
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This story has been corrected to 11-time Pro Bowl tight end.