Perhaps the biggest criticism surrounding offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and the Dallas Cowboys offense is the creativity — or lack thereof — in play-calling and in the variety of formations. We have heard pundits criticize the staleness, and even Dez Bryant commented that the personnel was lined up in the same spot for 16 weeks last season.
As Dallas looks to rebound from a relatively disappointing 9-7 campaign and get back to the team it was when it put up a 13-3 regular season record and secured a berth in the NFL Playoffs, a change in scheme and personnel was needed. The decision was made to nearly clean house on the offensive staff, as Dallas moved on from Derek Dooley, Frank Pollack, Steve Loney (he retired), and Wade Wilson in favor of Sanjay Lal, Paul Alexander, Doug Nussmeier, and Kellen Moore.
On the personnel side of things, stalwarts Dez Bryant and Jason Witten will no longer be on the field nor have any influence in team meetings or gameplans. New additions such as free agent Allen Hurns, third-round draft pick Michael Gallup, and trade acquisition Tavon Austin are all expected to give the Cowboys a new and fresh look as the offense evolves around its two young stars, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
While Hurns and Gallup have both showed lots of promise in Oxnard while developing a chemistry and connection with Dak, Tavon Austin is the player that has the potential to take this offense from good to elite. Austin’s ability to hurt defenses as a receiver and as a back out of the backfield gives Linehan another toy to play with.
The 2013 first-round draft pick was the most electrifying and exciting player in all of college football during his four seasons in Morgantown with the West Virginia Mountaineers. The speedy slot receiver and return man was taken eighth overall, but he has not had the kind of career that many were hoping for on draft night; nevertheless, Austin is a dynamic athlete that is capable of doing tons of damage with the ball in his hands.
Sean McVay knows how to use Tavon Austin and it's so great to see. pic.twitter.com/y8Xq3pOZNo— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 8, 2017
Here is how Tavon Austin can take the Cowboys from a good offense to one of the elite units in all of football.
Get him in space
It is no secret that Tavon Austin is at his best when he in space. His speed, quickness, and agility make him a nightmare to defend one-on-one in the open field. From juking his defender to just flat out running past him, Austin knows how to make the opposition look like fools. If the Cowboys want to get the best version of No. 10, giving him open field opportunities is crucial.
It’s a good thing that a man that has a lot of pull in personnel decisions has talked about this very thing: getting players in space. Four years ago, Cowboys VP of Player Personnel Will McClay discussed the importance of getting players in space because the game “is played in space”.
McClay: We look at what we need on the team for now and in the future. But as you build the team, in this day and age the game is played in space. So one of the first things we look at is speed. You’ve got to be a good football player, the character has to fit in to what we do and in our environment, but we’re looking for speed.
We want to build the team speed and the depth with good football players.
Then, more recently, McClay noted that Tavon Austin has impressed him during training camp, even saying that “I bet you everybody fears him”. Bold words from someone that is well-respected from both the Cowboys and from around the league.
On who has surprised him at training camp:
”Tavon Austin has stood out to me because he loves this game, and is one of the most intense people I’ve ever seen play this game at his size. He’s going to will himself to a lot of things, plus has the skill. He’s also going to will that room to grow and be better than people think it’s going to be. He’s my surprise.”
”We knew in college to run the football at the size and have the success that he did, but I didn’t know that was his demeanor day in and day out. Nothing’s fake about it. The smallest dude on the team, I bet you everybody fears him because he’s so intent about what he wants to do, what he wants the team to do.”
We have seen the Cowboys attempt to use a handful of players over the years in different ways to get in space, most notably Lance Dunbar. Dunbar was an underrated player that carved out a big role in the offense when he was healthy.
Thus far in training camp, Austin has displayed the ability to get open in the middle of the field. Austin’s improving route-running, something that wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal heavily emphasizes, shows that he can cause headaches for defensive backs and linebackers tasked with chasing him around the field.
Just from the clips here, it seems that if Tavon wants to be open over the middle, he's open. https://t.co/sq5wTSzpUW— Training camp Tom (@TomRyleBTB) August 13, 2018
The Cowboys defense has discovered how tricky it is to keep No. 10 in front of them.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was asked about which of the new additions in the wide receivers room — Hurns, Gallup, and Austin — has “stuck out the most” thus far in training camp. Here is what the third-year Pro Bowl QB had to say.
“I’d say Tavon for the simple fact, in the other place he was, I didn’t know he was as good of a receiver as he was and could run routes as well as he does, and catch the ball every single time,” Prescott said. “For me, from that standpoint, he’s not just a gadget, gadget guy. You don’t have to run him on speed sweeps and all that steps opens up the offense and you can use him there as well. He’s a guy you can put out there, inside, outside and trust he’s going to get open.”
That is definitely exciting to hear. If Austin can step up and become a reliable target for Dak, this open has the potential to really open up for Zeke and the rest of the offense.
Use him out of the backfield
Buidling on the getting Tavon in space in angle, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan would be wise to get creative on where Austin lines up pre-snap. Ezekiel Elliott is the unquestioned RB1, but using Austin as a weapon from the running back position has the ability to open up the Cowboys offense in ways we have not seen before.
The West Virginia product is more than comfortable running the football, totaling 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns on 184 carries over his five-season career. Dunbar was used as a weapon out of the backfield in Dallas and was having a productive beginning to the 2014 campaign before tearing his ACL.
Will Tavon Austin carve out the “Lance Dunbar” role in this offense — a versatile player that can be a third down back and help out in the receiving game? It would certainly make sense if so.
The #Cowboys traded for a RB, not a WR. That’s how they view Tavon Austin. Kind of like they had with Lance Dunbar.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 28, 2018
Austin has spent time at both running back and wide receiver during training camp, telling us that this coaching staff has a plan to use the former top-ten overall selection in a variety of different ways in order to find a weakness in the defense. Here is a clip of Austin being used as a receiver out of the backfield in practice earlier this month.
Last season, Garrett and Linehan played around with different formations while trying to find a role for Ryan Switzer. Against the Cardinals, the staff experimented with the 2017 fourth-rounder as a running back.
While the experiment never really gained any traction with Switzer, it gave us an idea of what the staff may potentially want to do with the right player. Could that player be the newly acquired Austin? Perhaps.
Would playing Tavon Austin out of position for four seasons really be the most ridiculous thing Jeff Fisher has ever done? pic.twitter.com/d1Z88M1NRw— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) April 28, 2018
Utilizing Austin’s skill-set out of the backfield could do two things for this offense: 1) give Prescott an extra pass-catching weapon for defenses to account for and 2) add an element of a change-of-pace back when the Cowboys want give Zeke a breather and mix things up.
Tavon Austin has already been making quite the impression during training camp with his new team. The electrifying do-it-all swiss-army knife has showcased his ability to be a weapon in the middle of the field for Dak, what he brings as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, and that he can go up and get the football, like this!
Furthermore, the man in charge of the most polarizing team in the National Football League has also stated publicly that he has been impressed by Austin, as Jerry Jones compared the energy that he brings to practice to that of Hall of Fame wideout and one-third of the Triplets Michael Irvin.
One of the players who has most impressed #Cowboys coaches is Tavon Austin. The owner singled him out Sunday, saying, “His energy is Michael Irvin-ish.”— Ed Werder (@EdwerderRFA) August 13, 2018
Then recently, the man himself claimed that this training camp he has “ever had, hands down”, crediting wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal for his development from OTA’s in May to training camp in Oxnard.
Tavon Austin: "This is my No. 1 camp I ever had, hands down. Just the plays I was making, the WR coach is making me a so much better receiver. It's crazy, starting from OTAs to now. ... I take my hat off to Sanjay Lal."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 16, 2018
Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski recently wrote that Tavon Austin “looks primed to break-out” in 2018. Sobleski writes that Austin appears to look “comfortable” and mentions how Austin is potentially a great fit in a mismatch league.
Austin doesn’t need to be a traditional wide receiver to serve as Dallas’ No. 1 receiving threat—he just needs to be himself. Early indications show a player finally comfortable in his skin and about to be unleashed in what’s become a mismatch league.
It remains to be seen just how creative and dynamic the Cowboys offense will look in 2018, but the tools are in place for Dallas to be a scary good unit this season with Dak, Zeke, and the Great Wall of Dallas leading the way. If Austin can emerge as a dynamic weapon in both the run and passing game, as reviews out of camp seem to suggest he can be, then look out.
Austin, if used correctly, can be the perfect weapon to take this Cowboys offense from good to elite as the former Rams do-it-all athlete looks to show the front office why he deserves a contract extension in the Big D.