Tuesday, December 29, 2009
WR Austin's breakout season rewarded
By Calvin Watkins
In 2006, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo became an overnight sensation when he was selected to the Pro Bowl barely two months into his tenure as a full-time starter.
Fast-forward to the 2009 season and another Cowboys overnight Pro Bowl sensation: wide receiver Miles Austin.
The kid from New Jersey was selected to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday night, less than three months after becoming a full-time starter. Teammates joining Austin in Miami on Jan. 31 are tight end Jason Witten, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, nose tackle Jay Ratliff, guard Leonard Davis and center Andre Gurode.
Austin has the numbers necessary to participate in the Pro Bowl. He's fifth in the NFL in yards (1,230), third among wide receivers in touchdown catches (11), tied for third among wide receivers with 20 catches of 20 or more yards, and tied for 10th among wideouts with 55 first downs.
But there is something more to Austin.
"He has the tools," wide receivers coach Ray Sherman said. "You get the feeling, you know, just a feeling he was going to be special."
Austin has good speed, good hands and the ability to make defenders miss. Coming into this past Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins, Austin was fourth in the NFL in yards after the catch with 523.
Sherman pushed Austin to be consistent in practice. The coach would instruct him to run routes a precise way, catch the ball a certain way, move his hips a certain way, read the defenses a certain way and keep his mouth shut.
"He's a humble guy," Sherman said.
In the offseason, Sherman will have videotapes of John Taylor, Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Cris Carter -- among others -- for Austin to watch and learn from. Austin said he will use the footage to improve his game.
Austin's skills will take him to the Pro Bowl, a place he didn't think he would reach.
In the past two weeks, the receiver had maintained that it would be an honor to reach the Pro Bowl but that it wasn't something he was waiting on. He wanted attention deflected away from him and toward his teammates.
Austin also said he needed more work to keep Sherman off his back. Sherman said he had to keep on Austin's back because he saw the potential. When Austin was coming out of Monmouth University in 2006, there were only two NFL teams at his pro day, the Tennessee Titans and the Cowboys. Sherman, then a wide receivers coach for the Titans, begged Tennessee to draft Austin. It didn't.
The Cowboys didn't, either, instead signing him as an undrafted free agent. He had a total of 18 catches his first three seasons.
Although Austin is on schedule for his breakout year, he couldn't beat out Patrick Crayton in training camp for the starting job opposite Roy Williams.
The Cowboys saw a glimpse of Austin's potential in the season opener when he had a 42-yard touchdown reception at Tampa Bay.
He had just four catches the next four weeks. When Williams missed the Kansas City Chiefs game Oct. 11 with bruised ribs, Austin earned his first career start. He had 10 catches for a club-record 250 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime. It was the first time an NFL player had 250 yards receiving in his first start.
Crayton lost his starting job, and although Williams remains a starter, it's clear Austin is the No. 1 wide receiver for the Cowboys.
"Once he became consistent, the light would come on for him," Sherman said. "He would see such a big difference once he understood the game more. He's always had flashes of being consistent."
And don't believe that Austin is just a big-play target.
In Sunday night's victory over the Redskins, Austin had an efficient nine catches for 92 yards with no touchdowns. His 10.2 yards-per-catch average in Washington was his second-lowest of the season since he became the starter.
But Austin proved in the Redskins game that he can grind out the tough yards to keep the offense going.
"It's possession-ish when you think 8 yards, 9 yards," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "But unique to him is on any one [of those catches] he can break a tackle or two and it's 40-50 yards. It's a heck of a weapon. He's got the hands and the quickness and speed to be a possession guy and move the chains anytime he gets [the ball] to make a big play."
Austin's story sounds similar to Romo's, and if things continue at this pace, the Cowboys will be happy they waited for the humble kid from north Jersey.
Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.