Decrease in red-zone stats has TE antsy
IRVING, Texas -- Just like most proven weapons, Jason Witten gets frustrated when he goes long stretches without making big plays.
The perennial Pro Bowl tight end is pretty antsy at the midway point of the season. Witten remains quarterback Tony Romo's security blanket, with a team-high 44 catches. But he's averaging a career-low 8.9 yards per catch, almost three yards less than he averaged the last three seasons, and has only one touchdown.
The Dallas Cowboys are 6-2 and lead the NFC East, so Witten isn't worried that several tight ends in the conference have much more impressive statistics. But he will occasionally point out to Romo, his road roommate and good friend, when he was open and didn't get the ball.
"He kind of gives me the look, like, relax," Witten said.
It's not as if Witten, who has excelled as a blocker all season, isn't making important plays. They just haven't produced long gains or put points on the scoreboard.
He twice has sealed victories during the Cowboys' four-game winning streak by moving the chains with short catches on third downs. His 5-yard catch on third-and-3 in Philadelphia prevented the Eagles' explosive offense from utilizing a two-minute drill to try to win the game.
The vast majority of Witten's work in the passing game has come on short throws. He's been targeted 56 times, 43 of which have been on throws of 10 yards or less, resulting in 39 catches for 298 yards.
But Witten has been an afterthought in the red zone. Romo has only targeted him three times inside the opponents' 20-yard line this season. Witten was kept in as a blocker on three goal-to-go plays in the final seconds of the loss to the Denver Broncos.
Witten was wide open in the back corner of the end zone on the Cowboys' final play of the first half against Philadelphia. But Romo, who had to elude a couple of pass rushers, didn't see him before firing an incompletion over the middle to Marion Barber.
Witten hasn't played a significant role in the downfield passing game, either. He has only three receptions of 20-plus yards this season, with a long of 22. He had 10 such receptions in 2006, 12 in 2007 and 14 in 2008, ranking in the top five among the league's tight ends in each of those seasons.
"You always want to be a guy who can stretch the field," Witten said. "You don't ever want to sell yourself short on that. But at the same time, we're winning games. I don't think it's anything in particular, like we're not trying to get those plays. I don't think it's like that. That's just kind of the way it's falling in place."
Added coach Wade Phillips: "I think it's just the one-football theory. We've made as many big plays as anybody in the league probably. Some of it may be that they're taking him away on those plays, but somebody else is getting open. I don't see a weakness there."
Indeed, the Cowboys lead the league with 40 plays of at least 20 yards, including 31 in the passing game.
Miles Austin has emerged over the past four games as one of the NFL's premier big-play receivers. He's started to draw double-teams, which ought to open up the deep middle of the field for Witten to do damage.
"I'm thinking that will," Witten said. "If it doesn't, that's fine, too."
Witten won't complain, especially if the Cowboys continue winning. But he reserves the right to nag Romo from time to time if the big plays don't start to come his way.
Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.