Cowboys don’t expect to get a free pass from Jason Witten on ‘Monday Night Football’

FRISCO, Texas – Jason Witten remembers the voice in his ear during his first practice broadcast for ESPN.

“Hey, listen,” a producer said of his film analysis. “That’s really awesome.

“But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Consider it a wakeup call for the Cowboys tight end of 15 years debuting this season as ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" analyst.

This week, ahead of Witten’s first broadcast of his old team, he anticipates another.

“Will it be different? Absolutely,” Witten said on a conference call with reporters heading into the game with the Titans. “Will it be awkward going into that stadium? Of course it will be.

“It will certainly be emotional for me. Why wouldn’t it be after 15 years?”

The scene isn’t new for Dallas, which welcomed back longtime quarterback Tony Romo as CBS’ lead analyst for the first time exactly a year earlier. A “WELCOME HOME 9” banner canvassed the end zone for Romo then. Before kickoff at AT&T Stadium, the team played a tribute video narrated by Witten.

Witten didn’t imagine then that a year later, the Cowboys would unfurl a "WELCOME HOME 82" banner in its place. He didn't imagine that his decades-long regiment of conditioning, workouts and film study would transform into … well, still cardio time and film study, but also newfound time to drive his four kids to school, coach his sons’ flag football team and pack their lunches for school at night.

“I’m not the cool dad anymore,” he joked.

He’s still a commodity around Cowboys HQ.

Coach Jason Garrett noted his “incredible amount of respect and admiration” for Witten on Friday; offensive coordinator Scott Linehan remembered fondly scheming for the “constant” who racked up 1,152 passes for 12,448 yards and 68 touchdowns in his Cowboys career.

Witten’s return this week puts a smile on everyone’s face, Linehan said. That doesn’t mean they want a more favorable broadcast.

“I expect Witten to be critical,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “When I first came in, he was tough on me.”

Now, critics are tough on Witten. He hopes his deep knowledge of the game overshadows rookie slip-ups, such as when he praised an Aaron Rodgers touchdown noting Rodgers pulled another rabbit “out of his head” instead of “hat.”

“Obviously I wasn’t trying to say head,” Witten said Friday. “But all you can do is self-deprecate and move forward.”

He also welcomes regular advice from Romo, now in his second year as CBS’ lead analyst, reminding his longtime friend to just trust himself.

Witten hopes with each game of experience he gathers, he’ll inch closer to the Pro Bowl caliber he achieved on the field and further from the producer voice in his ear wondering what in the world that 36-year-old tight end just meant.

Through the admittedly biased eyes of the Cowboys, he’s already there.

“I love listening to him because he just sees the game as you would expect a perennial Pro Bowler and Hall of Fame-type guy would,” Linehan said.

“A rare guy,” added Garrett, “a special guy we were all fortunate to have been around.”

Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein

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