Cowboys have big hopes for healthy Austin

IRVING, Texas – The simple fact that Miles Austin didn’t strain a hamstring made this a successful training camp and preseason for the Dallas Cowboys’ $54 million receiver.

That hasn’t been the case the past couple of seasons, when the wide receiver has been almost constantly nagged by his tender hamstrings. Not coincidentally, Austin hasn’t performed to the level of expectations that come with extra-large paychecks.

“At the end of the day, I try not to make excuses about anything that happened,” said Austin, who made adjustments to his offseason training regimen in an attempt to prevent further hamstring problems.

It’s not necessary for Austin to offer his health issues as an excuse. Anyone who watched the Cowboys the last couple of seasons could see that Austin, who missed six games in 2011 and most of two in 2012 due to hamstring strains, faintly resembled the dynamic playmaker of 2009.

It’s not that Austin was awful, particularly in 2012, when he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns. He was a solid third option behind Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in the Cowboys’ passing game, even though he didn’t have the gear necessary to separate from defensive backs or the burst to blow past tacklers.

But a healthy Austin, even as a complementary piece, is capable of much more than his recent production.

“We were all very proud of how Miles played last year because he wasn’t himself,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “He had a very productive year for us playing opposite Dez and opposite Witt in our passing game, and did a lot of good things for us, but he seems like he’s back to what we’ve seen in the past. He has quickness. He has explosiveness.”

How much Austin’s athleticism was hampered the past couple seasons is evidenced by his declining big-play totals and decreasing yards-after-catch averages.

Austin ranked among the NFL’s elite in both categories during his breakout 2009 campaign, tying for second in the league in 20-plus-yard receptions (21) and ranking second among receivers with 588 yards after catch. He averaged one 20-plus-yard gain every six times he was targeted and 7.3 yards after the catch that season.

Austin’s ratio of 20-plus-yard gains in the past three seasons: one per seven targets in 2010, one per 8.1 targets in 2011 and one per 9.1 targets in 2012. His yards-after-catch averages: 6.3, 4.9 and 4.5.

Those are trends a full-speed Austin ought to be able to reverse, especially considering the fact that Bryant will be such a focal point for opposing defensive coordinators.

“He’s going to warrant some attention his way,” Austin said. “The rest of us have to make plays.”

With Bryant’s boom, the Cowboys don’t necessarily need Austin to put up Pro Bowl numbers. They just need him to exploit mismatches created in part by his versatility, which quarterback Tony Romo cites as a primary reason Austin is an “invaluable” part of the offense.

Austin has operated out of the slot when the Cowboys have used three-receiver sets the past three seasons, often pitting him against third corners, with room to work in the middle of the field. Theoretically, this should put Austin in position to rack up huge YAC numbers. (Wes Welker, the league’s premier slot guy, has led NFL receivers in yards after catch in five of the past six seasons.)

It’s a heck of a plan, if Austin’s hamstrings only cooperate. The Cowboys have reason to believe it’ll finally pay off big this season.