- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Let's hope that Miles Austin enjoyed being the NFL's most pleasant surprise last season, a Pro Bowl campaign he cashed in on by signing a six-year, $54 million contract.
He'll spend the rest of his prime paying the price for stardom.
That means facing coverage schemes designed to slow him down. It also means dealing with expectations that he'll be worth all the money that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave him the week before the season opener.
Austin, whose contract includes $18 million in guarantees, can't promise production. The only guarantee he makes is that he'll give maximum effort.
"The only thing I think about that is I'm coming in here and I'm working 100 percent every day -- on Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday, on Saturday and on Sunday," said Austin, who has gone from an unknown, undrafted free agent to a celebrity within the past year. "That's what I'm always going to do, because that's all I've been known to do."
That's admirable and all, but Austin must be included among the many disappointing players during the Dallas Cowboys' first losing season since 2004. His two-catch, 22-yard performance in Sunday night's 30-27 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was far too typical.
Austin has 15 catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the past six games. Receivers who make $9 million per season are expected to occasionally put up numbers like that in one afternoon.
Austin also has been handed the ball three times in the past six weeks. He gained 92 yards on those plays, including a 60-yard touchdown run on Thanksgiving. But that's still only 18 touches in the past six games for the Cowboys' premier playmaker. Why can't Austin get more involved in the offense?
"I don't know," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "You'd have to ask the coaches. I have no idea. I can't answer that question."
Interim head coach Jason Garrett, who calls the plays, offered predictable answers.
Garrett mentioned that Austin gets a lot of attention every week, often with a safety playing over the top of him. That's what happens to No. 1 receivers across the league on a weekly basis.
Garrett also mentioned that the pressure of opposing defenses frequently forces Cowboys quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quicker than they want. Austin can't do what he does best -- run deep routes -- when Tony Romo and Kitna have only a couple of seconds in the pocket.
But premier receivers can't be one-trick ponies. And Austin certainly wasn't during his breakout season, when he often turned short throws into big gains.
Austin had a chance to make that happen on a third-and-4 in Philadelphia territory during the second quarter. Garrett got him matched up in the slot against a linebacker. But Kitna's pass on a hot route was too hot for Austin to handle.
The ball bounced off Austin, ricocheting to Eagles safety Quintin Mikell for a turnover. Kitna complained after the game that pass interference should have been called. Austin, whose seven drops entering the night were tied for the sixth most in the league, according to Stats LLC, accepted the blame.
"I just turned around, and the ball was six inches from me," Austin said. "That's a tough catch to make, but you've got to make it."
One of the reasons the Cowboys were comfortable making Austin one of the highest-paid receivers in NFL history is because he's an "anti-diva," in the words of team executive Stephen Jones. That's the truth.
We've never seen Austin ranting and raving on the sideline. We probably never will.
We've never heard Austin, who said this week that the only statistic he worries about is wins, complaining about his role. We probably never will.
But Austin isn't paid superstar money because he's a nice guy. He's paid to perform like a premier receiver.
That hasn't happened often enough this season, when he's been held to three or fewer catches in eight of 13 games. It didn't happen Sunday night despite Asante Samuel, the Eagles' best cornerback, staying home to nurse a knee injury.
"You want to take advantage of things, but at the end of the day, we have to execute what the game plan is," Austin said. "With the opportunities I have, I've got to be better."
It's not enough to be a nice guy who works hard. The Cowboys need Austin to put up numbers worthy of those on his paycheck.
5dEric D. Williams
5dMel Kiper Jr.