By Wes Holtsclaw
When New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick compliments you, it means something.
Usually reserved when lauding opposing players, Belichick was the latest National Football League coach to rave about Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.
Why wouldn't he? The Elizabethton native has quietly inserted himself among the National Football League's elite.
Even with three consecutive Pro Bowl trips in his first four professional seasons, the 25-year-old Witten has yet to reach his pinnacle on the field, where he's become an all-around threat.
"(Witten's) a great player, probably the best all-around tight end that I've seen in quite a while," Belichick said two weeks ago.
This fall, Witten's on pace for a career year -- playing a key role in the Cowboys' 6-1 start.
"So far, it's been good," Witten said Thursday night. "(Especially) going into a bye week, being 6-1 makes you confident right now. We're really excited with where we're at. Hopefully we can get into the playoffs and take it further."
Winning's something the tight end and his teammates want to continue after taking this weekend off with their bye week, but first Witten has some important business to tend to Saturday night.
Prior to Tennessee's home game with Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks, Witten will be honored as the Volunteers' 'Legend of the Game.'
After working in Dallas Thursday, the Elizabethton alumnus caught a flight into the area and caught the second half of his alma mater's gridiron battle at Sullivan South before making his way to Knoxville.
"I'm excited," Witten said. "It's special for me and it's special to my family. I appreciate what they're doing for me. I never thought I'd be a 'Legend of the Game.' I'm just trying to play football and enjoy a dream I've had. It's neat to look back on my career and see the success I've had."
Witten had his share of highlight moments in an orange uniform.
In 2002, after starting three games as a sophomore, he played a key role with a touchdown and over 100 yards receiving in the Vols' Citrus Bowl victory over Michigan.
During the fall of that year, his junior season, Witten closed out his collegiate career by setting school records for receptions (39) and receiving yards (493) in a season by tight ends earning consensus All-SEC honors.
The highlight likely featured Saturday is Witten's winning touchdown grab in the Vols' six overtime thriller against Arkansas from that campaign.
As special as his collegiate career was, nothing compares to the success he's had on the professional field.
Thus far, in his short professional career, Witten has caught 294 passes for 3,378 yards and 18 scores for the Cowboys. His name has been alongside the likes of San Diego's Antonio Gates and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez among the best tight ends in football throughout his career.
This season, his fifth, Witten ranks second behind Gates in receptions (42) and yardage (540), is tied for third in touchdowns (4) and has the best average among tight ends with over 40 catches this season (12.9). He leads each of those categories in the NFC.
Witten broke out the first game of the season with 116 yards on six grabs with a score against the Giants. He caught nine passes for 103 yards and a score against Buffalo, and had big outings in wins over Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota.
To many, Witten's currently the best tight end in the NFC. And when you figure his overall package including his blocking, as Belichick suggested, he's right there at the very top in the league as a whole -- not only as a tight end, but an efficient offensive weapon.
Witten's proud of his individual success and was honored to be acknowledged by someone as highly regarded in league circles as Belichick, but like any team player, he remains focused on his team and his team's goals.
"That was special," Witten said. "I got to speak with (Belichick) after the game and that meant a lot for him to tell me that because he's seen a lot of great tight ends in his lifetime and has been very successful as a coach.
"That was a tremendous honor to get that from him (and others), but I'm not caught up in it right now. I'm still worried about week to week and helping my team win."
Under new head coach Wade Phillips and talented young offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, with Tony Romo at center, Dallas' offense is reaching new heights and producing wins on a regular basis.
"It's been great. Wade Phillips has done a great job," Jason said. "The team's bought into his philosophy. Jason Garrett's a great coordinator and it's been really good for us. "Tony's doing a good job at quarterback and really leading us. It's exciting to be a part of."
Dallas' offense has many weapons, other than Witten, such as wide receivers Terrell Owens and Patrick Crayton, along with tailbacks Julius Jones and Marion Barber. But instead of focusing on guys like Owens, opposing coaches are keying in on Witten.
"He's one of the best weapons in football," St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan said earlier this season. "They're moving him around, putting him in the backfield, putting him in spots where he has a match-up advantage."
Witten's worked to get where he is, earning advantages on the field, by spending countless hours in a rigorous training program during the offseason, working hard on the practice field and in the film room.
Another key to Witten's more recent success is his relationship with quarterback Tony Romo, his closest friend on the team and longtime road roommate.
Since Romo took over behind center, Witten's numbers have improved on the field. When either Romo or Witten struggles or needs words of encouragement, the other is there.
Their bond has paid off for the squad and helped each other on and off the field.
"When you play with somebody so long, it falls over (to the field)," Witten said. "We're great friends, but just on the field, we enjoy playing together."
It's easy to have the success Witten and the Cowboys have had when you look at the attitude of the team. Not getting ahead of itself after a great start, the team is keeping things in perspective -- even if the Dallas-Ft. Worth area is on cloud nine.
"I think the attitude's great (on the team)," Jason added. "We're excited and happy with where we're at. It's still not satisfying because we've got some big division games coming up and that's going to be tough for us.
"There's a lot of confidence and a lot of excitement. Dallas hasn't won a lot in a really long time -- especially as far as going deep in the playoffs so there's a lot of energy in Dallas-Fort Worth."
It's the same old story in Tampa Bay: a solid defense and an offense that can't score.