When the Cowboys traded a measly sixth-round pick to the Rams for Tavon Austin’s services, it was surprising how many negative responses there were on various social media platforms. Over the course of this offseason, Scott Linehan became public enemy number one after the misfortunes of last season. When this trade was executed, there was doubt that Linehan would even know how to use a player that couldn’t cut it with the NFL’s new darling head coach, Sean McVay.
Linehan may not be considered the creative genius that McVay is but maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to write him off a few months ago. Despite last season’s struggles, Linehan was given a bigger stick this year and he’s been a part of an offensive revamp that’s taken a ton of tough decisions head-on. Linehan has been steadfast in this reset at receiver while assisting in building an offense best suited for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
In terms of his coaching ability to carve out a nice role for Tavon Austin, Linehan’s comments at the rookie minicamp doesn’t sound like a man who’s unsure of how to use this guy:
“We can use him for a lot of things. He’s a receiver first,” Linehan said from the Cowboys’rookie minicamp on Saturday.
There’s been a lot of talk of Austin fitting this niche role that is affectionately called the “web back”. Essentially it’s a guy who has the versatility to swing from receiver to running back as an added wrinkle in the offense. There’s been a little Twitter fodder lately about whether Austin is better out of the backfield or as a receiver, the answer is both. In 2015, his best statistical season, Austin had 907 total yards and ten touchdowns. It was almost an even split with 53 receptions, 473 receiving yards, five receiving touchdowns versus 52 carries, 434 rushing yards, and four rushing scores. He also had one punt return for a touchdown as well.
Though Linehan has labeled him a receiver-first, he understands that Austin above all else is a useful weapon:
“He’s really, in a lot of ways, some of his skill set is as an outside receiver, which is really unique. But he can move around [to the] slot. He can certainly have carries as well as catches from those positions.
”He can move into the backfield at times. He’s done that his whole career. He can move into the backfield and hopefully get a matchup where he can run a route that’s typically run by a running back.”
A weapon he may be but Austin is one of the best examples of a boom or bust player that the NFL has ever seen. On one hand he’s among the best ever in creating with the ball in his possession. On the other hand, he’s got a huge problem maintaining possession of that ball. Austin is literally one of the absolute worst protectors of the football...ever.
2 stats in this Tavon Austin piece that I am willing to spoil here first. Good: He has the 2nd most Yards per carry ALL TIME (6.73) for minimum 150 Carries. Bad: He also has more fumbles - 22 - (by a mile) of any non-QB since entering the league in 2013.— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) May 12, 2018
The Cowboys felt good enough about Tavon Austin’s multitasking abilities that they shipped one-year kick return specialist Ryan Switzer to Oakland an hour after acquiring Austin.
Ryan Switzer was the scapegoat last season against Austin’s former team for a muffed punt that let the Rams back in the game and ultimately led to a Cowboys loss. It was his only fumble on an otherwise decent rookie year as a returner with 29 punt returns, 256 yards, and a 80+ yard touchdown return. Switzer also returned 24 kickoffs for 600 yards. Switzer replaced the enigmatic inconsistency that was Lucky Whitehead who fumbled three times on a total of 77 kick and punt return attempts in two seasons.
17 of Tavon Austin’s 22 fumbles came on punt returns so Dallas shouldn’t close the audition process at kick returner. The good news is that Austin only averages about one fumble per season on offense. Can Austin’s lack of ball security in the kicking game be fixed? That remains to be seen but that’s not what sold the Cowboys on Austin, it was his explosive abilities on offense that Linehan wants.
In 2013 with Linehan calling plays for the Lions, Reggie Bush (28-years old) had a career year at 1,512 total yards and seven touchdowns. Bush was dynamic with over 1,000 yards on the ground (splitting time with Joique Bell) and an additional 506 yards on 54 receptions. Like Bush, Austin has struggled to live up to his Top-10 pick status but the talent level is undeniable. Can Linehan recreate the magic?
He’s tried in Dallas with multiple players but the result has been the same. First attempt was with Lance Dunbar who had the traits and speed but couldn’t stay healthy enough to trust. He tried again with Whitehead in 2016 with limited success but the lightning-fast receiver couldn’t stop checking into the dog house for bad decision-making. Austin is the best opportunity that Linehan has had since Reggie Bush in Detroit. Linehan most definitely has that similar vision for Tavon Austin.
“The goal as you play him is to have him in there for meaningful plays and he could be the No. 1 target or he might be the guy that all eyes are on that you’re really doing something else,” Linehan said. “It’s going to be fun to see that. He’s been doing some really good things while he’s been in the league. We had a vision for him coming out in the draft, I remember years ago in Detroit. It’s going to be exciting having him on our team.”
There’s an old adage in the NFL that speed kills and it just so happens to be one of Tavon’s calling cards. This isn’t an acquisition solely based on that though as Austin is far more accomplished than a typical speedster that finds himself available. He possesses rare athleticism, agility, and game-breaking abilities that opposing defenses must account for.
By the way Linehan talks about him, there’s a defined plan in the works. His “vision” for Austin is obviously one that has been given ample thought. Austin needs a coach to finally see his worth and squeeze all that he can out of it. Scott Linehan needs to add explosive weapons to his offense that make plays after the catch. If this marriage is a success, both of these men will achieve the redemption they crave after their recent struggles.