Rams Need an Offensive Coordinator Who Can Properly Utilize Tavon Austin

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 8, 2015

St. Louis Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin (11) points to the sidelines after a play during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

There is a riddle of sorts lying ahead for whoever takes the St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator position vacated by Brian Schottenheimer Wednesday.

He took a lateral but also downward move (a diagonal move?), leaving the professional coaching ranks for a college gig that isn’t the top job. He’ll be an offensive coordinator on a football field near you again next fall, only this time with the University of Georgia.

The riddle wrapped in an enigma that Schottenheimer leaves behind has a name: Tavon Austin.

It’s easy to shrug off Austin’s stagnant growth and blame it on Percy Harvin syndrome. Like Harvin or the Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson, Austin is versatile and has a unique set of athletic gifts. But also like Harvin and Patterson, he needs space to use those gifts. That often leads to specifically designed trickery through reverses and general misdirection.

That’s difficult, and it requires some creative offensive engineering. It means pursuing whatever is necessary to place one of your most explosive weapons in the best possible position to succeed and doing so with fresh looks that introduce an element of surprise.

Most importantly, it means rising to that challenge and not discarding an eighth overall pick as a lost project. I don’t think Schottenheimer actually intended to do that, because ignoring Austin intentionally would have meant he’s truly ambitious about failing.

But the end result of Schottenheimer's scheming (or a lack thereof) was a fading bust.

Tavon Austin's second-year decline
YearTargetsReceiving yardsTotal yards from scrimmage
Source: Pro Football Focus

For further context, note that Austin’s rookie season in 2013 ended three games early due to an ankle injury. So while appearing in two fewer games than he did in 2014 (Austin also missed a game this season with a knee injury) he was targeted 21 more times as a receiver.

Before Austin’s first NFL season ended early he teased us with his speed while going into full joystick mode. Over his final four games of 2013 Austin logged 346 yards from scrimmage. Yes, that’s correct: During a four-game stretch he averaged 86.5 yards per game, and then this season that fell to 31.1.

Thinking about Austin as an effective offensive weapon doesn’t require getting all nostalgic and misty-eyed. He’s not your favorite Discman or that rare set of Pogs some kid stole. He was real and thriving just a short time ago.

What happened? A lack of persistence from Schottenheimer happened, mostly.

Although being without quarterback Sam Bradford for an entire season didn’t help either Austin or Schottenheimer in 2014, it’s also difficult to lean on that as an excuse. Consult the numbers above again and note that much of Austin’s rookie-season production came during Week 10 when he went kaboom for 138 yards from scrimmage against the Indianapolis Colts. That doesn’t even include his 172 yards as a returner.

His quarterback during that game? It was well-established gunslinger Kellen Clemens. After Bradford crumbled with his first of two ACL injuries in back-to-back seasons, Clemens stepped in and started the final nine games of Austin’s rookie year.

To see the contrast between Austin’s usage then and his recent doghouse residency we should start with that Week 10 breakout game. Flipping back in time to over a year ago, we land in a strange mental space for Schottenheimer when his offensive imagination existed briefly.

Austin’s receiving yardage against the Colts came on two catches that ended in touchdowns after a lot of open-field galloping: one for 57 yards and another for 81 yards.

The former reception looks downright foreign now. We rarely see Austin let loose vertically on a 9-route, yet there he was using his 4.34 speed in the 40-yard dash to leave Colts cornerback Vontae Davis lagging behind by, oh, about three full strides.

Austin blew past Davis immediately after the snap. Below is the gap between the two as Austin prepared to make the reception and strut into the end zone. What you don’t see: Seconds earlier Davis had given himself a seven-yard cushion while respecting Austin's speed.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

What you also don’t see is a well-designed play by Schottenheimer to get Austin an ideal matchup and single coverage on a deep route.

Austin was lined up wide to the left of Clemens, who was in shotgun. Also to the quarterback’s left was receiver Austin Pettis in the slot. A safety had to approach the line of scrimmage and cover Pettis, which led to the single coverage on the outside.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Overloading one side vertically forces opposing safeties to make quick decisions. Austin’s speed rapidly accelerates the already minimal time defenders have while processing what’s happening before them. This deep completion was a prime example of him being more than just a slot receiver and more than just a gadget option out of the backfield.

His speed draws coverage. And then when coverage drifts elsewhere for even an instant, you’re left with a 57-yard touchdown.

That’s one way to use Austin’s speed. Another is to create space for him up the middle, allowing an elusive athlete to use his natural punt-returner skills.

Which is exactly what Schottenheimer did later in the same game. On a third-down play Davis was initially lined up wide to the left again, but then motioned inside. Now a bunch set had formed, forcing the cornerback and safety to back off.

That was beneficial in two ways: Austin was given space, and it created a natural pick play for him to sneak under.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Davis was assigned to him again on this play (he’s in the red circle of confusion above). He can’t reach his man and was unable to navigate the gaggle of bodies in front of him.

The result of this offensive ingenuity was Davis trailing far behind Austin once more and eventually an 81-yard touchdown.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

So that was a fun time-travelling trip to see happy Austin and Schottenheimer memories, wasn’t it?

With Schottenheimer, those warm thoughts were sparse in St. Louis because of his stubborn and often rigid play-calling, along with a hesitation to deviate far from his West Coast offense roots.

Austin’s success in 2013 wasn’t isolated to just a single afternoon, though Week 10 still stands as his best career game.

During the Rams’ next game he showed burst from the backfield, taking a play heavy on deception (a toss, then he quickly reversed his field) 65 yards for a touchdown. Then in Week 14 he turned an end-around into a 56-yard gain, which would be his final play of the season after he was tackled awkwardly.

But NFL defenses aren’t fooled by whizz-bang magic for long. Over time misdirection is what’s expected to happen when Austin is on the field, which is why it was important to highlight and reflect on the two plays against the Colts that resulted in long receptions.

Schottenheimer needed to develop that approach further, implementing similar play designs to utilize Austin’s speed and put stress on the decision-making skills of opposing defensive backs. Instead he strayed from it and became either bland with Austin or ignored him entirely.

Austin’s highest single-game output as a receiver in 2014 was 35 yards. He had a greater presence as a runner while averaging 6.2 yards on his 36 carries, finishing with 224 rushing yards overall. That’s one avenue to pursue with him, though backfield touches could become limited as running back Tre Mason continues to emerge.

Austin needs to grow as a receiver. He won’t do that while being on the field for only 57.4 percent of the Rams’ snaps, as he was in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

It may take time to name a new offensive coordinator in St. Louis. Head coach Jeff Fisher has a history of rarely being in a hurry, and his patience will be understandable while deciding on a replacement to lead an offense that didn’t rank higher than 21st in scoring during Schottenheimer’s tenure.

Barrett Sallee @BarrettSallee

Brian Schottenheimer's NFL offenses finished 20th or worse in total offense in all but one season since 2009.

The Rams are a quarterback away from being a playoff team in 2015. That makes Fisher’s goal during this process clear: to find an offensive mind who can succeed where Schottenheimer stumbled and do more than use Austin as a neat toy dusted off every so often.

Austin needs to be both consistently used and a consistent weapon. If he’s not, then the Rams have failed as an organization.


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