Commentary

Cowboys can't afford uncertainty

Team could've waited on WR Miles Austin instead of rewarding his breakout season

Updated: September 10, 2010, 9:39 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys paid Miles Austin as if he were Terrell Owens.

That's a mistake.

Austin agreed to a six-year contract extension Thursday worth $54 million. The deal calls for $18 million guaranteed.

The other starting wide receiver on the Cowboys, Roy Williams, signed a five-year extension in 2008 worth $45 million with more than $20 million in guarantees.

Earlier that year, Owens signed an extension with the Cowboys for $34 million over four years.

You can argue that Owens is a locker-room diva and all that, but there is one thing you can't dispute: He's a proven player whom defenses must contain.

This is not to say Austin isn't deserving of the money. Who can complain about a player of Austin's skill set making $54 million?

But the Cowboys should have made him wait. They did so with his quarterback, Tony Romo.

In 2006, Romo saved the Cowboys' season and pushed them into the playoffs. He didn't get a new contract until the next season -- a six-year, $67.5 million deal.

The Cowboys made Romo work for his money and he rewarded the organization with one of his best seasons as a professional that year.

Austin made the Pro Bowl after catching 81 passes for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He was a physical force able to break tackles and outrun defenders when covered one-on-one in the slot.

Last season, Austin was 14th in the NFL with 707 yards-after-catch, and he led the league with 15 catches of 25 yards or more.

All this after just 18 catches in three NFL seasons. But somehow Austin broke through.

The game against the Kansas City Chiefs, which Williams missed because of a rib injury, put Austin on the map.

Austin set a single-game team record with 250 receiving yards in his first NFL start in a victory in Kansas City. It was the first time in NFL history that a player picked up 250 receiving yards in his first start.

"When you look at Miles Austin now, that Kansas City [game] might have been one of the greatest games anybody's ever played in the National Football League," coach Wade Phillips said. "We're glad we've got him, and I know he'll continue to do well. He made a certain impact last year and I think he's going to continue."

For all the uncertainty surrounding Williams, there should be some surrounding Austin. He has to prove he can perform at this level again.

Defenses will employ a Cover 2 scheme, in which a safety covers Austin along with a cornerback to make sure he doesn't make plays deep down the field.

Cornerbacks will press him, forcing Romo to find other receivers -- in this case rookie Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and Williams.

Austin's numbers should go down.

Right?

"People have a whole offseason to study him, therefore there are going to be some new wrinkles," receivers coach Ray Sherman said. "Some new things we haven't seen before. We just have to be ready to adjust and adapt."

That's the problem.

If Austin doesn't adjust and produce big numbers or have an impact on the offense, whether it's by making catches or opening the door for others, it would appear the Cowboys made a mistake.

The Cowboys can't afford any more mistakes, moneywise, with their wide receivers. They took a $9 million cap hit in 2009 to let Owens go, and you can't get more than a few people to believe in Williams' abilities when matched up to his contract.

In 25 games, Williams has just 57 catches. Austin had 81 last year.

Austin doesn't believe in predicting the future because it wastes everybody's time. You never can tell what the next year will produce.

And it's that uncertainty that raises questions about giving Austin the money now.

If he has a strong September, great. Give him the money. Waiting a few more weeks is not going to hurt anything.

"I don't know about anybody else, just because you responded in a certain situation doesn't mean you might choke the next year," Austin said. "You never know what's going to happen. For me to predict something is crazy. It's whatever happens in that day."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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