With four players listed as questionable for week 16 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dallas Cowboys are getting healthy at the right time. Needing just one more win, or a Philadelphia Eagles loss, to clinch the NFC East, the Cowboys are in position to welcome back a player that hasn’t taken the field since week six.
That would be Wide Receiver Tavon Austin, whose inched closer to a return in recent weeks from a groin injury.
In a game of “what have you done for me lately?”, the Cowboys offense falls on its face answering this call with a shutout loss squandering last week’s chance to win the division at the Colts. For Austin, this answer is also bleak, but the sixth year pro did turn in one of the most electric plays of the season in the Cowboys first win over the Giants.
Still in a pre-Amari Cooper period for the Cowboys receivers, Austin’s 64-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage was almost unthinkable for any of Quarterback Dak Prescott’s other pass catchers at the time.
Cowboys Nation would love nothing more than to bury the nightmarish start to this year on offense, but should welcome Austin back as a dual threat.
Amari Cooper has made touchdowns of 90, 75, 40, and 28 yards look routine since his arrival from Oakland, and could be in line for even more game-breaking plays if lined up with Austin. Cooper and rookie Michael Gallup have formed a successful duo for the present and future in Dallas, with Austin hoping to factor into this rotation with his own speed element.
In Austin’s absence, Cornerback Jourdan Lewis has carried the ball twice on jet sweeps that went for gains of seven and five. In a small sample size of six carries, Austin was averaging just over nine yards a carry before his injury.
This disparity in “hidden yards” that the Cowboys are currently desperate for are also evident on special teams, where Dallas is 18th in average punt return yards. Cole Beasley has averaged 4.67 yards, below Austin’s previous mark of 5.8 yards.
There’s also Austin’s 21 career fumbles through 75 games, a warning sign that expecting too much out of the Cowboys gadget under the tree (kettle?) is precisely how the Cowboys ended up with their initial lack of skill at WR.
Those days are gone, and thankfully with it are the expectations for Austin to carry any significant portion of the Cowboys offense or special teams. What Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan has in a healthy Austin is a card up his sleeve for everyone fairly doubting his play calling ability after the Cowboys were blanked by Indy.
Linehan’s offense has put out some of their best outputs following lethargic performances, including a 2016 win over this week’s opponent on the heels of a loss at the Giants, 10-7. With another win over the Bucs, the Cowboys can make this year’s road trip to the Giants meaningless for division implications, a feat that still seems miraculous given this team’s 3-5 record through nine weeks.
If the Cowboys do clinch on Sunday, don’t rule out Austin being tasked with running back duties in a committee approach that allows the team to rest Ezekiel Elliott in week 17. Practice squad Running Back Darius Jackson was activated this week when Tight End Geoff Swaim was placed on IR.
Tavon Austin or not, the Cowboys were hardly a playoff caliber team with him on the field in the first six games, but are in the mix of NFC contenders with all-important room to further improve this season’s biggest weakness on offense.
Along with Austin, Right Guard Zack Martin, Cornerback Anthony Brown, and Linebacker Sean Lee are the other Cowboys listed as questionable for this game. Brown and Lee suited up for the Cowboys defense last week, while Martin missed his first ever start and Austin was out for the eight straight game.