On a team molded from Jeff Fisher’s orthodox vision, Tavon Austin resembles football’s Roger Rabbit. Partnered with a stand-in for staid P.I. Eddie Valiant named Jeff Fisher, the pair seem like they belong in different football worlds.
The manner in which Austin accelerates on command, weaving through defenders who move like their section of the turf is on an incline, is equally cartoonish. Austin is one of the few 4.3 speedsters with more football speed than his 40-yard dash would have you believe. The size differential between the 5-foot-8ish, 176-pound shot glass of Austin and his peers is as jarring as the (fictional) border between Toontown and Los Angeles.
Fisher is the archetype for every buttoned up Baby Boomer busting up their neighbor’s party because Daft Punk was playing too loudly at 9 p.m. Now in his 22nd season as a head coach, Fisher has compiled 169 career wins by utilizing a vanilla philosophy in an avant-garde era. The last 1,000-yard receiver on a Fisher-coached team was Derrick Mason in 2004.
On Friday, the Rams locked their human joystick into a four-year, $42 million deal. Fisher’s future is inextricably linked to the future of Austin. 2015 saw Austin surge in production from his first two mediocre seasons as he gained a total of 907 yards from scrimmage.
Meanwhile, in nearby San Diego, the Chargers are playing hardball with their all-purpose scat back Danny Woodhead’s attempts to negotiate an increase on his $2 million base salary. Obviously, the Rams believe Austin’s ceiling is a sunroof, bright.
The 2015 iteration of the Rams offense was anchored dead last in passing yardage and in explosive plays over 20 yards. To avoid wasting the talents of their lone offensive threat Todd Gurley, the Rams will have to give their buttoned-up offense a downfield passing threat.
Currently, the Rams’ focus is on getting Austin the ball in open space near the line of scrimmage. Unlike the Antonio Browns, Golden Tates or John Browns of the league, Austin hasn’t shown the capacity to snag balls in traffic and fight for first downs in late-game situations.
Jared Goff’s transition to the NFL from the air raid won’t matter if he doesn’t have a No. 1 receiver to scrape the top off secondaries. The expectations for air raid hurlers is so low that the phrase “rich-man’s Geno Smith” is what would come to mind if a therapist played the word association game with Goff.
Austin should be the shot of Henny to Los Angeles’ teetotaler offense. His presence on the other end of Smith’s screen passes at West Virginia created one of the nation’s greatest scoreboard mobs. It wasn’t sustainable on the next level for either, but Austin proved he could handle a heavy-usage role, catching over 200 passes during his final two seasons in Morgantown.
In early August, Fisher quipped that Austin has just two speeds, “One’s fast and the other is asleep.” He may have been uncomfortably accurate describing Austin’s body going cold for large chunks of Rams possessions.
It’s impossible to tell if Austin is an electric playmaker being restrained by scheme or a gadget player who’d fade into a peripheral No. 3 role in a fluid offense.
Last season, Austin sunk even further into his scat-receiver role, rushing for 434 yards. This fall, Austin’s production as a receiver should continue proliferating. The nearest model for how Austin’s potential energy should be unleashed is the Cardinals’ John Brown or Detroit’s Tate.
Austin has seen a steady diet of horizontal routes such as simple screens, reverses or end-arounds since his rookie season, or most notably, acted as a decoy. Fisher has also promised that Austin would catch 100 balls this year.
Amazingly, if he hovered around his career average of 9.2 yards per reception, worst among active receivers, he’d still finish south of 1,000 yards. The only high-volume receiver averaging fewer yards per reception in 2015 was Tate, who recorded a 1,300-yard effort in 2014.
Conversely, he still gained nearly twice as many catches and yards. Yards after the catch amount to 71 percent of Austin’s receiving gains compared to 64 percent of Tate’s. Even for agile slot receivers who reel in shorter throws in positions to run, that’s a sky-high percentage.
Like Austin, Tate’s yards after the catch accounted for a disproportionately high amount of his total production. Yet, Austin’s 6.9 YACs per reception were a full yard more than Tate’s. Tate regularly gains yardage off screens, but he also diversifies his portfolio as one of the most prolific out-route runners in the league today. In Seattle, he was notable for his toughness as a downfield receiver.
In 2018, Austin’s new contract puts him in the top-12 wideouts tax bracket, indicating faith that he’ll ascend into the high-volume No. 1 receiver echelon. His modest numbers as a percentage of the Rams’ total offensive yards puts his contract in perspective.
In the ultimate “show me” league, one of the NFL’s most conservative coaches is going all in on a high-risk investment.
“It’s our anticipation of what he’s going to do,” Fisher explained to reporters Sunday. “We’ve seen what he’s capable of and we’re hoping we’re going to get a lot more than what we’ve seen in the past.”
This unshakable faith in Austin could be Fisher’s biggest gamble yet.