EARTH CITY, Mo. — If Nick Foles really is the answer at quarterback for the Rams this season, then the questions about Tavon Austin’s production might finally cease. See how that works? Shore up the Rams’ long-standing issues at the game’s most critical position, and the ripple effect promises to lead in a lot of different positive directions.
That’s the plan at least in St. Louis, where arguably no one stands to benefit more from Foles's arrival than Austin, the undersized receiver-return specialist whose play has yet to live up to the lofty expectations that came with the Rams trading up to select him eighth overall in the 2013 draft, making him the first receiver taken.
Austin hears the steady background noise as he enters his pivotal third NFL season. He knows it’s time to show more than flashes of the tantalizing and versatile skill set that made him a top 10 pick. But he also realizes his first two years in the NFL featured four different Rams quarterbacks throwing to him, and 25 of those 32 games were started by the likes of career backups Kellen Clemens (nine), Shaun Hill (eight) and Austin Davis (eight). Sam Bradford, the Rams’ oft-injured franchise passer, played just seven games with Austin, losing most of the past two years to season-ending ACL tears. That most definitely was not the plan.
But enter Foles, the former Eagles starter who was traded to St. Louis in exchange for Bradford, and add in the elevation of Rams quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti to offensive coordinator in place of the departed Brian Schottenheimer, and there’s hope that a new quarterback and new play-caller will translate to a dramatically new level of playmaking impact by Austin. Sounds like a plausible preseason storyline, but only time will tell if it comes to pass.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that his production level should increase,” fourth-year Rams coach Jeff Fisher says following the first full-pads practice of training camp at the team’s suburban St. Louis complex. “I think one of the key things for us as we move forward is Nick and the fact that he’s 6'5" and can see Tavon and get the ball to him. That was the plan with Sam [Bradford is 6'4"], but it didn’t happen. He didn’t really have Sam throwing him the ball for two years.
“This has nothing to do with Tavon. It’s not a reflection on what he’s done. Tavon has done everything he possibly can. He’s in great shape, and he’s highly talented and a passionate teammate. This has been more about the circumstances of our situation. This potentially could be a breakout year for him. Because he’s got the potential to win outside and inside.”
So the long and short of it in St. Louis seems to be that Foles’ height and vision could be the difference-making element to bring out the best in the 5'8" Austin, in a way that the 6'2" Austin and 6'2" Clemens couldn’t. (Hill is 6'5", but I digress.) Fisher and Rams general manager Les Snead both made the point to me that Foles’s size could prove very beneficial to Austin, and in theory, I get that. But a simple sense of quarterback stability combined with the balancing threat of an improved running game led by Todd Gurley might truly be the key to getting Austin the ball in space, thus unlocking his big-play potential.
It doesn’t hurt that Austin senses the urgency of his situation, after his production dropped noticeably in 2014, with his receptions falling from 40 in '13 to 31 last year and corresponding dips in receiving yardage (418 to 242), touchdown catches (four to zero) and targets (69 to 44). Though he also contributed as both a rusher (36 carries for 224 yards and two scores) and a punt returner (35 for 391 yards, one touchdown and an 11.2 average), Austin has to become far more than a return specialist and gadget-play threat if the Rams are to get enough return on the investment of trading up to No. 8 to land him.
“It can kind of get to you,” Austin said of the bust chatter that surrounds his first two seasons in St. Louis. “But anybody who really knows football, they kind of know what’s going on. I’ve been through four or five quarterbacks in the past two years, and that’s not making excuses. But I’ve had my glimpses, and had my times when I came on. And I had my times when I wasn’t playing too much. For the most part, it’s out of my hands. All I can do is come in and work hard and hope my number is called.”
It’s early in the process, but Cignetti is said to have a better feel than Schottenheimer ever did for how to best utilize Austin’s speed and elusiveness, and will more fully integrate him into the scheme. The new offensive coordinator has also lauded Austin’s focus and commitment this off-season, pointing out how much his strong classroom work has translated to the practice field. In the opening days of camp, at least, Foles and Austin seem to have an emerging connection, with the new quarterback looking early and often for him, especially when he lines up in the slot.
“I’ve been making some good plays out here and that started in OTAs,” Austin says. “I basically stayed here the whole off-season and didn’t really go anywhere. I stayed here and worked out with the trainers, put a couple pounds on me and got a little bigger [he’s listed at 176 pounds]. I think if Nick stays healthy and I stay healthy, we’re going to go from there and make some plays.”
Fisher promises more creativity in how the Rams use Austin, with or without the ball in his hands.
“I think you’ll see more of an attempt to either get the ball to him in space as a runner, as an outside runner, as an underneath receiver, as a deep receiver and also, unfortunately for his case, as a decoy,” he says. “Because people react to him, defenses react, when he’s in the game. People are really concerned about him on offense. Opponents don’t want the ball in his hands. And we do have other options this year. We only have one ball.”
The off-season theme in St. Louis has been that the Rams, in a bit of a throwback to Fisher teams of old, will largely try to ride a talented defense that returns 11 starters and a Gurley-led running game to success this season, with the firm belief that the former Georgia rusher will be one of the NFL’s next superstars once he’s fully recovered from last November’s ACL surgery. But this is still today’s NFL, and you’ve got to throw the ball to build a lead, in order to put games away with the running game and defense.
“We can’t wait until Gurley comes, because it’ll definitely take a load off of us,” Austin says. “But one thing we know, we can’t run the football all day, because you’ve definitely got to pass it at some point. Short passes or deep passes, it’s not going to be like last year or the year before, when they played nine in the box on us. They can’t do that no more.”
With the Rams largely in survival mode on offense the past two seasons, starting a backup quarterback so often, Austin’s development as a playmaking threat has been anything but a front-burner issue. But his time appears to have arrived, and St. Louis can’t afford the luxury of not getting more production out of the former West Virginia star.
“When you’re playing your backup quarterback, you get into the mode of being less willing to be really creative and you’re just trying to figure out how are we going to win the game?” Snead said. “So all those storms, all the adversity probably limited his production. Is that the whole story? No. I mean, he’s got to do his part.
“But I tell him, ‘Just play.’ He can feel the pressure of, ‘Okay, I should be producing more.’ Sometimes you want him to just relax, because he’s trying to live up to the standards and expectations. So you’ve got to just let him go. He’s hungry to succeed. The guy is like that Kentucky Derby horse. Man, he’s at the gate and ready to go, ready to break. He wants it so bad.”
And the Rams badly need him to be the force they drafted. This NFL season promises to be a unique one in St. Louis, in almost any scenario. Relocation issues aside, if the Rams are to make a move this year in the NFC West standings, it’s time Austin finally provides more answers than questions.
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