FRISCO, Texas – It’s amazing that, in this age of information, things can still get twisted so easily.
That applies to a million different facets of life – many of them being far more important than NFL football. But my job is to write stuff about the Dallas Cowboys, and sometimes I’m at a loss for how simple facts can become so confused.
For a latest example, I’m looking squarely at the acquisition of Tavon Austin back during the 2018 NFL Draft. The Cowboys sent a sixth-round pick to the Rams, and in exchange they received Austin – a diminutive, lightning fast skill player, originally drafted in the first round back in 2013.
I chose the phrase “skill player” deliberately, because at this point there’s 18 different talking points about what he’s going to do here. Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett confused the entire football world on draft weekend, when they continually referred to Austin as a “web back.” Jones didn’t make things any easier in the same press conference, when he suggested Austin might get the ball “a dozen to 20 times, two dozen times a game” in the Cowboys’ offense.
Austin chose No. 10 – a number reserved for wide receivers – but he’s listed on the Cowboys’ roster as a running back. He caught the ball just 13 times during his last season with the Rams, but he took 59 carries.
On top of that, he has at times been one of the NFL’s most electrifying return men, with 158 career punt returns and 25 career kick returns in six seasons.
So, to get back to the central point of the article, what exactly is this guy going to do for the Cowboys?
The answer seems obvious, provided you don’t insist on lumping him into one category.
To prove that point, I actually went back and looked at the offensive involvement of the two guys Austin is most often compared to – Lance Dunbar and Lucky Whitehead.
The comparisons are obvious. Dunbar was a small, speedy running back who filled a role as both a runner and receiver for several years in Dallas. Whitehead was a small, speedy receiver who had a niche as both a ball carrier and a return man.
For one month in 2015, before suffering a massive knee injury, Dunbar played 34 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps, tallying five carries and 21 receptions for 282 total yards. He also returned six kicks for an average of 24 yards per attempt.
The Cowboys had a very clear role in mind for Dunbar that year, before injuries derailed everything. After all, when the Cowboys trailed the Giants, 26-20, with 1:29 to play in Week 1, it was Dunbar on the field – not Joseph Randle or Darren McFadden. He was instrumental in getting that game-winning drive going, too, as he caught two passes from Tony Romo for 40 yards, moving the ball into scoring range.
Things obviously changed drastically in 2016, when the Cowboys spent the No. 4 overall pick on Ezekiel Elliott. Rather than choosing from four less prominent running backs, the Cowboys had another true bell cow in the mold of DeMarco Murray.
And still, even in 2016, there was room for this “web back” type of role. Believe it or not, in the 15 regular season games Zeke started as a rookie, he only accounted for 70 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps. Running backs not named Elliott – whether it was Dunbar, Alfred Morris or McFadden – accounted for 30 percent of the offense’s snaps.
Whitehead played a role in that, too. As the Cowboys’ fifth receiver, he played 143 of 1,060 total snaps in 2016 – roughly 13 percent. In that stretch, he took 10 carries in addition to three receptions. And, as predictable as his contributions were – jokes about the jet sweep abound – it worked way more often than it didn’t. In two years with the Cowboys, Whitehead took 20 carries and averaged a whopping nine yards per attempt.
It obviously wasn’t just his ability as a runner, either. Whitehead was a constant presence moving across the formation. Even when he didn’t touch the ball, his speed was scary enough to give defenses just a moment’s pause.
This is an element that was missing from the Cowboys’ offense in 2017, and it’s not just because Elliott was suspended for six games. In the 10 games that Elliott was available to play, other ball carriers accounted for just 78 snaps – or roughly 11 percent.
There were some half-hearted attempts at diversification. Ryan Switzer took four carries on the year, for a grand total of five yards. Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant both got a couple of cracks at it, but nothing substantial.
My argument here would be that perhaps the Cowboys, suspecting that Elliott might be due for NFL discipline, opted to stock themselves with substitutes for Zeke, rather than complements. Rod Smith and Alfred Morris are both perfectly capable running backs, and they played well during Zeke’s six-game absence – but they’re both similar players to Elliott, and they don’t possess the lateral speed or agility mentioned above.
Now, take a look at what the Rams have asked of Austin in recent years. It’s precisely the element the Cowboys have missed.
Of course, I’m not trying to convince you that Austin is some All-Pro the Rams dealt away for just a sixth-round pick. A variety of factors pushed the former first-round pick down the depth chart until he was expendable. Austin hurt his wrist last offseason, and he said that – combined with a hamstring problem – limited his effectiveness in 2017.
The Rams also saw Todd Gurley emerge as an NFL MVP caliber running back. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp broke out as reliable options for Jared Goff. And then there was the offseason addition of Brandin Cooks, which may have spelled the end for Austin more than anything else.
Still, there’s an intriguing amount of versatility that goes with Austin’s natural athleticism.
Watching games from the last two years, the Rams weren’t afraid to use him in a variety of different ways.
- He lined up out wide in three-receiver sets, catching bubble screens and running traditional downfield routes.
- He motioned across the formation, running jet sweeps and play actions from the slot and from out wide.
- He lined up as a single back, taking handoffs and toss sweeps – from both traditional and shotgun formations. He also caught his fair share of swing passes and flare outs from the backfield, as well.
- He motioned out of the backfield, forcing defenses to account for a last-second switch from running back to receiver.
Perhaps my favorite wrinkle, he occasionally lined up in the backfield alongside Gurley – which is an intriguing thought, potentially forcing defenses to account for both Austin and Zeke, in the same place at the same time.
It all stacks up to look like this: in the last two years, the Rams targeted Austin 128 times, resulting in 71 receptions – that’s an average of four targets and two catches per game. Throw in 87 total carries, an average of three per game, and 58 total returns, which is roughly two per game.
All told, that’s roughly 10 opportunities per game – and Austin did a decent job with them. During his two seasons in Los Angeles, he amassed 1,392 all-purpose yards. He averaged 7.8 yards per reception and 4.9 yards per carry.
There’s cause for optimism those numbers could be better in Dallas.
For starters, the offense is bound to look different. The Cowboys are losing 1,944 snaps from 2017 in the form of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant – not to mention two of the focal points of their offense for the past decade.
We’ve already established that Austin can get onto the field in a number of different ways – whether it’s as a receiver, a second running back or even the primary ball carrier. There aren’t many personnel groupings that necessitate he leave the field.
The Cowboys have shown a willingness to diversify away from Zeke. Remember, in 2016, running backs other than Elliott played 321 total snaps. Keep in mind that Austin can participate at the same time as Elliott, and the sky’s the limit on how much action he could see.
Not to mention, for all the flak he’s taken these last few months, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has a history of utilizing exactly these types of players.
When he was with Detroit, Linehan added Reggie Bush to his offense in 2013 -- his final year before leaving for Dallas. The result was one of the best years of Bush’s lengthy career, as he took 223 carries for 1,006 yards while adding 54 receptions for 506 yards.
The Lions gave Bush roughly 22 opportunities per game that year – and that was in an offense that still found a way to target Calvin Johnson 156 times for 1,492 yards.
Now, is Austin capable of maximizing a role like that? It’s hard to say. He hasn’t done it to this point in his career – and it remains to be seen just how heavily the Cowboys want to feature him.
That’s part of the beauty of this experiment, though. For starters, nobody’s leaning on him. Not only will he not be the focal point of a run-first, powerful offense, he also won’t be carrying the label of a disappointing top 10 pick.
On top of that, there are tools around him. This coaching staff has experience using his skillset. His quarterback and running back play to his strengths, as well. Factor in the talent on the offensive line in front of him, and there’s a lot to like about Austin’s present circumstance.
It’s too soon to say how well it’s going to work. But some quick research can give you an idea of what Tavon Austin is capable of. To be frank, it could be an awfully good idea.