Austin can be Cowboys' difference maker

IRVING, Texas -- If you mentioned Miles Austin's name on Twitter, in a story, just in passing, you are bound to get a bunch of the same reactions.

Like, "Who?" or "The Cowboys should cut him already," which was preceded by, "The Cowboys should trade him already," before the trade deadline passed, or "A hamstring injury? Again? Really? LOL."

Austin has missed five of the last seven games with a hamstring injury suffered Sept. 22. He did not catch a pass in the two games he played against the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles before the Cowboys decided to shut him down so he could get healthy.

He was in a bad spot. If he didn't play, fans would question his commitment. If he did play and did not produce, they would wonder why he was playing.

Austin returned to the practice field Wednesday for the first time in two weeks. Jason Garrett said Austin looked good. So did offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. Teammates noticed Austin looked more fluid than he did when he attempted to work his way back from the strain.

"We've given him plenty of time off to get that thing healed up," Garrett said. "We haven't been impatient with him. We try to be extra patient with him, so when he comes back, he's himself. He really got off to a good start this year. He was very productive in the couple of games he played early on. We just got to get him back to that point."

And the Cowboys need him more than people want to believe. Austin caught 15 passes in the first two-plus games. He had 10 against the New York Giants in the season opener.

Teams have to defend the Cowboys differently when Austin plays. He can -- and has -- made big plays outside and inside. Cole Beasley has done a nice job, but is he more effective in smaller doses? Terrance Williams has slowed down some in the last three games as well.

A focus of the bye week for the Cowboys was to find ways to get Dez Bryant and Jason Witten the ball more. Having Austin on the field should help.

"He adds a different element to the attack because he's a move guy, he's been good up the seam, he can beast underneath coverage as well and also work in the outside lanes so that's a real positive to have him back," Callahan said. "He'll definitely add to it."

Gripe all you want about Austin's hamstring injuries the last three seasons. He's upset too. It's not like he wants to get hurt. And I've never understood the line of thinking people have that a player shuts it down after he got paid. To me, it should be the other way around. He's been paid and he will never get that kind of money again, so why would he shut it down? Why wouldn't a player who hasn't cashed in yet be just as likely to think about the future earnings and want to be careful? That's an argument we don't hear near as much.

But that's off topic.

This is about what a healthy Austin can mean to the Cowboys. Maybe it's too hard to get your hopes up because of the past.

The Cowboys can't expect the defense to be "fixed" in the final six weeks. It's broken. It can play better, sure, but if they are going to win games it will be with Tony Romo, Bryant, Witten, DeMarco Murray, Williams and, yes, Austin, who will have to carry the day.

"Miles is a really good football player," Garrett said. "And Miles is a mismatch-type football player for people because he's a big guy and when he's healthy he's quick and explosive. So he's a hard match when you put him outside against certain guys. He's a hard match when you put him inside against certain guys. He can get open by being bigger and stronger. He can get open by being quicker and more explosive when he's healthy. I think you saw that at different times in his career. He's been really a hard guy to defend. You saw that early on this year."