Not much is being made of Jason Witten’s record-breaking season, but the tight end overcame doubts (including some from me) that he was wearing down. Part of the reason Witten was able to break the record for the most receptions by a tight end in a single season is that he was used as a receiver more than ever. Witten went into a route on 644 plays in 2012—by far the most of his career. In comparison, he averaged right around 100 fewer routes in the previous three seasons.
Witten was used as a blocker on just 85 passes this season—11.7 percent of the passing plays for which he was on the field. That’s the lowest mark of his career. Tony Romo got sacked on six of those plays and ran for a 10-yard gain on another, leaving 78 actual throws. Romo completed 47 of them (60.3 percent) for 604 yards (7.7 YPA), 6 TD, and 4 INT—good for a mediocre 88.8 passer rating.
One of the reasons Romo’s completion percentage was low when Witten stayed in to block is that the Cowboys generally looked to get the ball downfield in those situations. The average depth of Romo’s passes when Witten wasn’t utilized as a receiver was 11.49—about a standard deviation higher than the average on all other throws. Thus, the ‘Boys used Witten in pass protection in order to secure big plays.
There’s further evidence of that in Jason Garrett’ play-action rate. Although Garrett called for a play-action pass on a league-low 9.8 percent of passes, he did it on 28 of the 85 plays (32.9 percent) on which Witten was used in pass protection. On those play-action passes, Romo was sacked just once and completed 20 of his 27 throws (74.1 percent) for 351 yards (13.0 YPA), 4 TD, and 3 INT—giving him a passer rating of 115.9.
The Cowboys’ usage of Witten in pass protection resulted in 26.9 percent of Romo’s passes going for at least 15 yards. When Witten was out in a route, Romo’s rate of 15-yard completions was only 15.6 percent.
Moving forward, Garrett should continue to use Witten in pass protection, but he should increase the play-action rate when his tight end is used as a blocker. When Romo showed play-action with Witten in as a blocker, he had a 115.9 passer rating. When Witten stayed in to block but Romo didn’t use a run-fake, his passer rating was only 71.8. That difference perfectly sums up how Witten should be used in 2013.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.