- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams rookie Tavon Austin received a game ball for his efforts as a punt returner last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars though a simple glance at the box score would leave most wondering why.
That’s because Austin’s official stat line in returning punts doesn’t account for his team’s continued inability to execute special-teams plays, particularly punt returns, without a flag raining down on the field.
The Rams’ six special-teams penalties against the Jaguars cost them 125 yards of field position, bringing the season total to 17 special-teams infractions, one more than the offense and defense combined. Of those 17, 12 have come on punt returns and seven have resulted in half the distance to the goal yardage mark-offs.
Against the Jaguars, Austin had three returns totaling 81 yards called back for various infractions. He should have had 92 yards on his four returns but instead finished with a meager 15 for an average of 3.8 per attempt.
A clearly frustrated Austin left the locker room quickly after the game, eye black still visible. On Monday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he attempted to keep Austin’s spirits up, thus the game ball offering.
“Yeah, I gave him a special-teams game ball for having 91 punt return yards in the game,” Fisher said. “So, he’s happy.”
Asked if his ploy worked, Fisher said it did and that he also took some time to show Austin what his punt return numbers would look like were it not for the continued accumulation of penalties on his returns.
Fisher’s numbers would have Austin carrying a return average around 10 yards per attempt to go with 257 yards and highlighted by an 84-yard return for a touchdown that was called back. Austin’s current numbers fall well short of those lofty statistics as he has 57 yards on 17 returns, an average of 3.4 yards per chance and a long of 14. Fisher doesn’t believe the penalties on the returns would have affected Austin, making them all the more maddening.
It’d be easy to understand why Austin would be frustrated at this point with the continued penalties but he’s doing his best to be supportive of his teammates.
“The only thing that matters is my team, they keep on trying,” Austin said. “That’s the only thing that matters to me and I will do the same thing week in and week out and hopefully they’ll stand.
“We’re definitely getting better at it. We have just got to keep working, keep drawing up good schemes and hopefully our plays keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Of course, the special-teams penalty problems extend beyond just the punt return unit. Against Jacksonville, cornerback Brandon McGee ran into Ace Sanders, who called for a fair catch and cost his team 15 yards and cornerback Janoris Jenkins jumped offside on a field goal and an extra point.
Special-teams penalties aren’t new to the Rams under Fisher and special-teams coach John Fassel, either. In 2012, the team drew 25 special-teams flags, second most in the league. They had just three in the first five weeks last year and are clearly on a more alarming pace this season.
In looking around the league, it doesn’t appear there’s more of an emphasis on throwing flags on special teams. Rams opponents have been flagged eight times this year. Fisher hasn’t agreed with all of the calls going against his team, either.
“We have an unusually large number,” Fisher said. “We’ll get it corrected. But again, the confidence in the room -- the guys are good. I think everybody else in the world, after a long return, can look for a flag. We’re not going to because we’re not going to play that way.”
The most common thread among the flags is the relative youth of the players on those units. Youth is not an excuse but the Rams are working with mostly rookies or second-year players, particularly on punt returns. Many of those players don’t have a lot of special-teams experience.
Linebacker Ray Ray Armstrong, McGee and receiver Stedman Bailey have combined for nine flags and all three are rookies. While some advocate benching or cutting players to hold them accountable, that’s easier said than done given that Fassel doesn’t exactly get to pick and choose from the team’s entire pool of players for special teams.
Instead, Fisher is preaching consistency and confidence that as players mature they’ll get better.
“That’s just the special-teams world,” Fisher said. “I’ve got tremendous confidence in the whole group in the room and Coach Fassel. It’s very important to them. They work very hard. It’s going to turn around. We’ve got an outstanding returner and an outstanding scheme. We put each of the fouls in perspective, discussed them -- ‘How do you avoid them?’ whether in fact it was a foul or not. So, I’m confident that we’ll get it behind us.”
It’d be one thing if this was just a five-game sample size but including last year’s problems, it appears there’s a deeper trend forming. Of course, the numbers have grown worse this year so it seems unlikely that things will continue at this exaggerated rate.
Still, wishing, hoping and handing out game balls is nice but until something more tangible breaks their way, progress will have to be seen to be believed.