IRVING, Texas — Jason Witten still remembers vividly his first NFL catch, though at the time the Dallas Cowboys tight end didn’t think enough about it to even keep the ball.
It was a 13-yard pass from Quincy Carter in the fourth quarter of a loss against Atlanta, the only catch of his NFL debut in the 2003 season opener.
“It’s one of those deals, you catch it, you get up. It’s just football, this is what we do,” Witten recalled Wednesday. “It seems like it was yesterday.”
When the Cowboys play at Atlanta on Sunday night, Witten might catch a ball really worth keeping.
With four more receptions, Witten will surpass Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin’s career mark of 750 that stands as the Cowboys’ franchise record.
“Their exterior might be different but they’re all about the same thing,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who was Irvin’s teammate. “Each of those guys is as good a teammate as I’ve been around, as passionate about this game as I’ve been around, works as hard at this game as anybody I’ve ever been around. Really, really well liked.
“Michael is obviously flamboyant. Jason is not quite as flamboyant. But the passion in both of those guys is there.”
Witten broke his own single-game franchise record by catching 18 passes in a loss to the New York Giants last Sunday. The seven-time Pro Bowler has 43 receptions over the last four games after a slow start while he recovered from a lacerated spleen.
Now he is close to passing Irvin’s career mark established over 12 seasons (1988-99).
“He was one of the greatest,” Witten said. “So just to be mentioned with Michael Irvin is special, and hopefully we’ll have a good discussion after a big win about it, once it happens. But really, until then, my focus is trying to help this team win and where we’re at in the season.”
The Cowboys (3-4), after missing a chance to get within a half-game of the Giants (6-2) for the NFC East lead, now play the NFL’s only undefeated team.
That also means Witten has a chance to break Irvin’s record with Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez on the other side of the field.
Witten ranks third on the tight end list with his 747 catches, trailing Gonzalez (1,195) and retired Shannon Sharpe (815). Witten is also third among tight ends with 8,396 yards receiving.
“I have all of the respect for him. He plays the position the way it’s supposed to be played,” Gonzalez said of Witten during a conference call with Dallas media. “He’s definitely, without a doubt, a dual tight end. That means he blocks and catches, and obviously where the state of the tight end is in the NFL right now. I mean a lot of these guys are just catching passes so I love seeing a guy like him blocking and catching the ball and doing both things very, very well.”
Gonzalez and Witten have become friends over the years while playing in Pro Bowl games and attending Super Bowls. For all of their catches and records, they have only one playoff victory among them — Gonzalez is 0-5 and Witten 1-4 with an NFC wild-card victory three seasons ago.
This is the 16th NFL season for Gonzalez, who plans on retiring after this one. He said he is “95 percent sure” of that even though he has no doubt he could play at a pretty high level for a couple of years more.
“He’s the greatest to ever play the tight end position,” Witten said. “It’s amazing, he’s still going at the level that he’s doing it. You talk about durability and consistency, he kind of defines that, especially at this position.
“I’m a big fan, and it’s great to see him still at a high level the way he plays and how he carries himself both on and off the field.”
Witten has played in 150 NFL games. The only game he missed was because of a broken jaw as a rookie in Bill Parcells’ first season as Cowboys coach.
It was Parcells who used to say then about Witten, “don’t put him in Canton yet.”
But there could be a future spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for Witten, who never even considered being the Cowboys’ career receptions leader when he first arrived as a third-round draft pick out of Tennessee.
“I was just trying to survive that first training camp,” Witten said. “You’re always in search of the perfect play and the perfect game, so it’s just this process you’re always trying to be better and better and better. You don’t really get to that point that you can enjoy it, because you’re always looking for more, and expectations get higher.
“If it happens, it will be special.”