INDIANAPOLIS -- Tavon Austin, the St. Louis Rams' rookie receiver and returner, announced his presence to the NFL by telling his teammates to get away from a bouncing football. Tavon time was about to begin.
A little more than 12 seconds and 98 yards after ignoring his own advice, Austin found himself standing in the Indianapolis Colts’ end zone, ball in hand and ready to celebrate his first NFL punt return for a touchdown.
“He got the football in his hands and I found myself saying, ‘Get away, get away, get away,’” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “And I went from ‘Get away, get away, get away’ to ‘Go, go, go.’”
And go, go, go was about all Austin did in the Rams’ stunning 38-8 victory over the Colts on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Austin added touchdown catches of 57 and 81 yards to the goody bag from his coming-out party. By the time Austin was through, he had 314 all-purpose yards, the second most in franchise history, and his 98-yard punt return was the second longest in Rams history and tied for third longest in NFL history.
Austin’s three touchdowns also put him in some elite company when it comes to big plays by young players. He, Randy Moss and Gale Sayers are the only rookies to score three times in a game from 50 yards out or more. And in posting 140 or more yards from scrimmage and 140 or more yards as a punt returner, Austin joined Carolina’s Steve Smith as the only players in league history to hit those numbers in a game.
“When he’s able to catch the ball in space, as you can see, it’s a race and he always wins,” guard Rodger Saffold said.
In previous incarnations of readily apparent breakthrough performances, Austin and his teammates have found themselves reflexively stopped in their tracks.
There was the 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Dallas called back for holding and the 63-yard touchdown catch against Carolina erased by a tripping penalty. Those are just two of the big plays Austin has seen tossed by the wayside in his first NFL season.
Even as Austin sprinted toward the end zone on each of his three touchdowns, there was an overwhelming instinct to look around for something yellow on the field.
“Tavon did the same thing everybody does,” Saffold said. “As soon as he crosses the end zone, we all look like this and make sure there’s nothing on the ground.”
The result of those mishaps has been frustrating for all parties.
“It’s kind of difficult but it all boils down to patience,” Austin said. “I have been fishing for eight weeks, and hopefully it’s my time right now. But if it’s not, I have just got to keep working hard in practice and wait for another time.”
For the Rams, there would be no better time than the present for Austin to become a threat capable each week of single-handedly wrecking games.
During the three-game losing streak the Rams finally stopped Sunday, they consistently found themselves a big play or two short of a win, especially in the past two. With almost no margin for error, they came up empty each time.
In the absence of those game-changing plays, many eyes have turned to Austin. The Rams traded up to draft him with the No. 8 overall selection in April’s NFL draft. Fair or not, the expectations with that lofty status ask for a quick return on investment even if history suggests it's a difficult task for a rookie at Austin’s position.
Earlier this week, Rams defensive end Chris Long -- a player who knows all about exaggerated expectations -- offered some advice to Austin, telling him to be patient and not to force anything.
The message was simple: Austin’s big day would come; it was just a matter of time.
"Nobody in this locker room was looking at Tavon like, 'You haven’t done this or that,'" Long said. "That’s a lot of the outside world. In this locker room we know what kind of a commodity he is for us. Even if they take him away, that helps us. He forces them to make adjustments, that helps us. If he continues to work hard, he’s going to be a real big player in this league."
Austin clearly took Long’s advice.
“I definitely knew things were going to come,” Austin said. “That’s just me being patient and being true to myself. I keep working. I’m just glad I got the opportunity.”
With six games remaining in the season and a large hill to climb to make it interesting, the more opportunities Austin gets, the better.