Dallas' Miles Austin: A Season-Saving Sensation, Not a Flash in the Cowboys Pan

Mike CarleyCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 11:  Receiver Miles Austin #19 of the Dallas Cowboys warms-up prior to the start of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs on October 11, 2009 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Now I must admit, I often get accused of embellishing the significance of big wins by the Dallas Cowboys. Personally, I find such accusations to be both unfounded and ridiculous.

That being said, the Dallas Cowboys' 37-21 trouncing of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday was the most significant win in the history of humankind.

Tomfoolery aside, I cannot overstate what a significant win that was for the Dallas Cowboys' season.

Anybody who has followed my last few articles knows what a melancholy and despondent state the first five games of the season put me in. 

After a turnover-laden loss to the Giants at home, a deplorable first half against the winless Panthers at home, a last-minute loss to the Broncos, and a "victory" over the Kansas City Chiefs, my seemingly unending confidence in this squad was absolutely, well, ending.

I was genuinely starting to question if this team could ever be good, could ever play together, could ever execute and put together the four quarters of crisp, efficient football that all playoff-caliber teams exhibit.

Penalties, dropped passes, delay of games, and illegal formations seemed to be the early death knell of yet another squandered roster that was seemingly so full of promise just weeks earlier.

An early bye week appeared to be precisely what this apparently reeling team needed to finally get its act together.

This weekend, albeit one game, put to rest a multitude of the doubts that the first few weeks of this season had generated. 

The Cowboys' defense was generating sacks and turnovers, the Cowboys' special teams generated their first punt return touchdown since 2007, and Tony Romo was, finally, Tony Romo again.

I was reading an article by Rob Phillips on the Cowboys' Web site this week in which he mentioned a chant the crowd started during the third quarter.

After yet another slippery sack-evade from the recently embattled gunslinger, the crowd at Texas Stadium started chanting "MacGuyver."

I honestly couldn't think of a more fitting nickname for Tony Romo, and I'm surprised it hasn't caught on until now (granted I don't live in the Dallas area, so I could have missed it).

Romo was at his best on Sunday, unafraid to unrelentingly keep every play alive for as long as possible, avoiding sacks and running away from defenders, converting first downs with his feet, and throwing touchdowns he had no business throwing.

Basically, creating something when everybody else watching couldn't fathom how he could create anything productive.

All the while not making a single turnover.

True, it is those very same traits that sometimes lead Romo to force plays and commit turnovers, but that is the cost of other-worldly ingenuity.

You can't tell me every portable land mine MacGuyver threw together from some cat litter, fishing wire, Big League Chew, and a nine-volt battery worked seamlessly every time he tried.

But when MacGuyver was at his best, no amount of ridiculously convoluted circumstances could keep him from escaping and laying down some general badassery.

Similarly on Sunday, just when Romo seemed to be cornered with nowhere to go, he would pull out a cat-litter-fishing-wire-and-Big-League-Chew-land-mine of a play, completely take the defense off guard, and made many of the big plays that led to the Cowboys' convincing 37-21 victory this past Sunday.

Exhibit A would obviously be the touchdown Romo threw to Patrick Crayton to end the first half after he evaded more oncoming attackers than than the Polish army circa 1939.

While we are still on the topic, both Romo and MacGuyver get chicks too. You can't tell me MacGuyver didn't pull chicks with that voluminous mullet he rocked, and we all know Romo's history.

All in all, phenomenal nickname, and to make a long story short, I am absolutely running with it from here on out.

But if Tony Romo was returning to form, Miles Austin was yet again displaying the form he seems to be taking in the NFL.

The biggest storyline going into this game was the 'Boys finally having all three running backs (Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice) back in action. After anemic offensive performances versus the Broncos and the Chiefs, the only explanatory variable seemed to be the lack of production from a banged-up backfield.

However, when a seemingly stout Atlanta defense shut down the running game for much of the first quarter, it quickly became apparent it would be up to MacGuyver and company to start making plays, or else lose yet another home game to a playoff-caliber team.

When Roy Williams started dropping balls again, when the false starts and encroachment penalties started flying again, the season seemed to be teetering on the brink of being lost forever.

Seven catches for 171 yards and two touchdowns from Miles Austin later, and the Cowboys had sent a message to the rest of the league. That message?

"Hey, if we don't shoot our own feet off at every turn, we're a pretty formidable opponent."

And after a second consecutive huge week from Austin, it is safe to say that he is a real, verifiable threat in this league, and he undeniably will be the big-play replacement that Roy Williams has failed to be so far.

Now by no means am I saying that it only takes two games to evaluate and declare an NFL star. 

However, these two huge games in conjunction with several other factors seem to suggest that Miles Austin can be the dominant force this Cowboys passing game has been lacking.

For starters, he has much better hands than either Roy Williams or T.O.

Both T.O. and Roy Williams try to catch far too many balls by trapping it against their chests, which leads to a greater number of incompletions because the ball is very hard to hold onto if the defender hits the receiver or gets a hand in before the receiver has time to secure the ball.

Other times, the ball is simply thrown so fast that the ball ricochets at light speed off their chest pad and onto the ground before they have a chance to bring their hands up quickly enough to trap it.

Austin, on the other hand, snags a majority of his passes with his hands, out and away from his body. 

The first benefit of catching with one's hands is that it creates more separation between the ball and any meddling defensive backs (and their meddling dogs, too!).

Additionally, passes caught with the hands are often secured the second they come into contact with the receiver's hands, as opposed to rattling around between the receiver's forearms and breast-plate for a few moments. This makes it much tougher for defensive backs to jar the ball loose with a simple well-placed hit or hand.

Miles Austin also sports the physical attributes to succeed as a big time NFL wideout.  At 6'3" and 214 lbs., Austin has the size to both out-jump and out-position most DBs for contested passes.

Despite that size, the sizable fourth-year receiver from Monmouth still sports a 40 time in the 4.3-4.4 range.

In conjunction with good hands, great size, and great speed, Austin has been developing on the Cowboys roster, largely out of the circus that has plagued this team, for the previous three seasons.

He has had time to pick T.O.'s brain, watch endless hours of practice, and get tons of work with now-starter Tony Romo (both were backups all season for 2005 and for part of 2006).

Because of this, Romo definitely seems to have a familiarity with Austin that he has failed to develop with Williams.

In the past two games, Romo has targeted Miles Austin 25 times for a total of 17 receptions, good for a rate of 68 percent.

In the first four games of the season that Roy Williams started, MacGuyver targeted him 25 times as well, and only completed 11 passes for a rate of 44 percent. And that was in twice as many games as Austin has had to start.

To recap, Miles Austin has great hands, great size, great speed, and has been given the necessary time to develop out of the Dallas Cowboys' spotlight and establish an amazing rapport with Romo.

Oh yeah, and in the past two games he has hauled in (gulp) 17 catches for 471 yards and four touchdowns. Taking all the above facts into account, it appears like this explosion was more a matter of time than a matter of "WTF is going on with this Austin kid?"

Next week against Seattle at home will be a nice tune-up for brutal back-to-back road games at Philadelphia and at Green Bay, and it should be the first time we see a defense treat Miles Austin with the double teams and respect a No. 1 receiving threat in this league demands.

This also should be a pretty good litmus test to see how Austin will respond to such attention, and it should be interesting to see what opportunities it opens up for other threats who haven't been doing as much lately, such as Jason Witten and Marion Barber.

Whether that happens or not, a single fact remains irrefutable: Miles Austin has single-handedly saved the Cowboys' season, despite the litany of penalties and inefficiencies that have plagued the early part of this season.

Without a gargantuan game in Kansas City to pull out an overtime win and another huge performance against a wildly talented Atlanta Falcons roster, the Dallas Cowboys could easily be down at the bottom of the division with the lowly 2-4 Redskins.

Austin has been such a savior this season I wouldn't be surprised if he has walked around to everybody on the team, looked them earnestly in the eye, and said "Earn it" like dying Tom Hanks at the end of Saving Private Ryan .

In reality, the symbolism of that ridiculous analogy isn't too far off.

Miles Austin has given a Cowboys season a second life that it in no way deserves. 

No team that jumps offsides four times in seven plays by four different players deserves to be a half of a game out of the lead in a division containing the Giants and the Eagles.

However, here we are. 

Romo appears to be sharp, the defense finally seems to be realizing its potential (Mike Jenkins and Gerald Sensabaugh have been particularly impressive), and the team has finally found its new big play threat in Miles Austin.

The team now needs to continue to build on the momentum that this huge win has given them, as the schedule only gets tougher from here on out. 

Building on this momentum is so imperative because there were still signs of the "old" Cowboys in this win, as impressive as it was.

Far too many 3rd-and-longs induced by false starts, and way too many other stupid penalties, including a penalty that called back a 15-plus yard Tony Romo first-down scramble, and a silly offsides penalty on a failed Atlanta 3rd-and-2 that prolonged a drive that Atlanta would eventually score on.

There is still room to improve for this team without question.

But if this is the a step in the right direction that I believe it is, and the Cowboys can build on this momentum and get better as the season progresses (would be nice for a change), then I very well could be eating my words about Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett come playoff time.

Unfortunately I am not holding my breath on that account, but know if I do have to eat my words on Phillips and Garrett, nobody, and I mean nobody , will be happier about it than I will.


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