There is no shortage of ideas floating around Valley Ranch these days, as the Dallas Cowboys begin determining how to move past a third consecutive season with no playoff appearance.
Some of these ideas might be good, and some of them are probably bad.
But I have to assume that among the biggest topics of discussion these days is regarding the future of Miles Austin.
You never have to wait long before somebody starts calling out quarterback Tony Romo following any loss in which he threw at least one interception. The fact that Romo wasn’t drafted then follows as the most tired and tepid excuse that I’ve ever heard from an emotionally hurt fan that just doesn’t get the quarterback position. This idea has managed to permeate into the national media as well, and it is actually supported by some who obviously know better.
But oddly enough, you never hear anybody point out the fact that Austin wasn’t drafted either following another dropped third down pass! No one starts cussing "Monmouth University" when he fails to out-jump a corner who might be three inches shorter for a jump ball that ends up being intercepted.
When it comes to Austin, injuries are generously offered as an excuse for his level of play that has yet to approach the expectations that his contract inspires.
Among the challenges for the coming offseason is the need to add more talent despite limited salary cap room. This will make free agency a bit tighter than what owner and general manager Jerry Jones prefers, but he has only himself to blame.
You have to be careful when you’re offering a new contract to a small school player that has only shown a limited amount of work. This includes players like Austin, right tackle Doug Free and even Romo.
Only Romo has been a landmark steal as an undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois University.
But with Free and Austin, you have to think that Jones is feeling some indigestion these days.
Austin’s massive contract extension that he signed in September of 2010 stated that Austin would basically play his entire career in Dallas. Designed to be salary cap friendly, the seven-year, $57 million dollar contract is already looking like a major bath for Jones.
With retired wide receivers Joey Galloway and Roy Williams, Jones has already taken some big gambles on pass catchers that have really hammered his franchise. The Austin deal really isn’t looking too much better, either, no matter how you slice it.
Austin has gone over 1,000 yards receiving just twice in his seven-year career. Prior to his 2009 breakout performance against Kansas City, Austin had all of three touchdowns—each of them scored tin he season prior amidst a crowded depth chart which still included Williams, Terrell Owens and Patrick Crayton.
Like Romo, Austin waited roughly three-and-a-half years prior to getting an opportunity to contribute as a starter with the Cowboys. He certainly jumped on the opportunity in his first start against the Chiefs in October of 2009, when he set a franchise record for receiving yards in a single game with 250 on 10 catches while also scoring two touchdowns—but he also dropped a couple of touchdowns in that game that the Cowboys needed overtime to win.
Since then, we have seen nothing close to the same performance from Austin after he scored 11 touchdowns that season.
Austin hasn’t been terrible. He just hasn’t really been worth his salary.
Jones has suffered the problem of writing big checks that do not end up getting him much in return. Remember that you also had the Marion Barber extension just a couple of years prior to Austin’s that also fell way, way short of expectations.
Austin’s biggest issue is health. If the hamstrings could stay intact then he could be a top-10 receiver in the NFL. But Austin has missed either significant playing time or significant moments in each of the past two seasons because he can’t stay healthy. Austin has had tight hamstrings since he joined the team.
Compounding the health problem is Austin’s irritating drops.
When Romo throws a deep interception, like the second one against Washington in the season finale, it can serve the same purpose as a punt. But nobody can look past the fact that it’s a turnover when it’s Romo.
Well, every time Austin runs a deep crossing route on third down, but allows a perfectly catchable pass to squirt right through his hands, this is also a turnover. But Austin’s mistakes don’t seem to carry the same weight.
In football, a lost possession is a lost possession. Does it really matter how the ball went back to the opposition? Not that much, I'm thinking.
Occasionally it could matter, but the idea is to score points, and it sure is a pink elephant in the room when you consider Austin’s salary with his actual productivity in Garrett’s pass-happy spread offense. I don’t see how it’s sustainable to keep paying Austin, no matter how salary cap-friendly his contract is supposed to be.
Yes, there are definitely challenges ahead for Jones, but these aren’t the kind of challenges that he can conquer by simply rolling up his sleeves. This is part of the reason why last season’s one-hit-wonder, receiver Laurent Robinson, could not be retained.
Dallas is still wondering who its third receiver on the depth chart is, and it seems to me like they’re actually looking for a solid No. 2 option as well. 2010 first-round pick Dez Bryant is the No. 1 receiver moving forward, but he is being paid like he’s the second receiver on the depth chart. Bryant may not have the leverage yet, but it looks like he might be able to command an extension within the next 12-18 months. Unfortunately, you can’t pay both Bryant and Austin to be No. 1 targets.
Next to former Detroit Lions GM and former linebacker Matt Millen, nobody can get himself and his franchise into more trouble with wide receivers than Jerry Jones.
How should the Cowboys approach the Miles Austin situation?
Fixing this will take some time, especially considering the potential cap ramifications of releasing Austin. Perhaps a re-structuring of this horrible deal could make things more tolerable, but I don’t see this happening either. You re-structure the contract of a player that you want to keep longer, as opposed to just doing so to minimize a cap number.
Austin is a two-time Pro Bowl player who isn’t likely to take less money. Receivers are far too plentiful these days to have to pay one with the limited availability of Austin.
Jones ended up figuring out how to replace T.O. when he drafted Bryant, and when it comes to Austin, don’t be surprised if he is released, traded or if his contract is possibly re-structured.
Something has to change.