Miles Austin: Former Rookie Free Agent Explains Why Every Play of Preseason Can Be Make-or-Break
When you’re an undrafted rookie free agent, every play of preseason is crucial. Just ask Miles Austin, the former Cowboys’ Pro Bowl wide receiver who is now a member of the scouting department.
Austin is one of a laundry list of Cowboys’ players that started his career as an undrafted rookie free agent yet rose to stardom and Pro Bowl status. He followed in the footsteps of legendary Cowboys like Drew Pearson, Cliff Harris, Everson Walls, and then on to Tony Romo.
When Austin arrived at rookie minicamp in 2006, not only were people unsure of his name (is it Austin Miles or Miles Austin?), most had no clue about the location of the small school where he played college football. Monmouth University, where in the heck is that located? (on the Jersey shore, if you’re wondering).
He knew his only shot at the Cowboys’ 53-man roster was to catch the coach’s eye during preseason action. And when somebody repeats the familiar refrain that “preseason games don’t matter”, he has a message for them.
“I feel like whoever says that is wrong because it matters for everybody,” notes Austin. “It’s not just the rookies or unknown guys that benefit from these preseason games. For the first-teamers, preseason gives them looks against competition other than our own team. It lets you test and work the stuff you’ve been doing in practice against a real opponent who doesn’t already know what you’re doing. You get to test your skills against people other than who’ve you have worked against the entire camp.
“For coaches, they get to call plays in a real situation that doesn’t count against the won-loss record. It’s a great way to work all the things you’ve been doing from OTAs to minicamp to training camp.
“For the younger guys who are trying to make the team, it’s obviously vital to see if they can make plays under the big lights of game-time. A lot of guys make plays during practice, but can they do it in a game? Even though preseason games don’t have the same amount of media coverage or the same amount of fans in the stands, it’s still big lights and you can see what guys do under stressed environments that aren’t scripted.”
When Austin refers to “big lights of game time”, he’s not kidding. Back at Monmouth, he estimates the average size of the crowd for home games was maybe 4,000 or 4,500 fans. There were 15x that amount of people at his first NFL preseason game in Seattle, a road game against the Seahawks. None of them were there to see Miles Austin or Austin Miles or whatever his name happened to be. He wasn’t going to make the team anyway.
“My first preseason game I didn’t get many plays on offense,” Austin recalls. “I got three plays. There weren’t any pass plays because we were already winning. I knew I had to block my defender really hard. I knew the way to make my mark and get noticed by the coaches was to block physically on a run play. That was my way to make the team.
“For the whole preseason, I had only one catch. But it went for a touchdown against New Orleans. I actually kind of ran the wrong route. It was a route that converted against press coverage, but the cornerback who was covering me was five yards and single-high. It was supposed to be a ‘smoke’ or a ‘go’. I decided to run a ‘go’. Tony (Romo) was expecting me to run the ‘smoke’ and he pumped-it and caused the guy to bite on it. And then I caught the ‘go’ and caught a touchdown running up the sideline. I got lucky on that one.”
Tony Romo was the backup quarterback that season, by the way. The starter was veteran Drew Bledsoe.
Paul Spinelli via AP
Romo-mania would not sweep Cowboys Nation for another 2 months when Bill Parcells benched Bledsoe in favor of the former undrafted QB from Eastern Illinois. But Austin had gotten offseason and training camp work with Romo and the rest of the backups. Romo liked Austin right away and saw potential in the kid from Jersey. And Romo made an adjustment on Austin’s incorrect route which resulted in a big play for the receiver in a so-called ‘meaningless’ preseason game.
“I remember on the bus ride home from the game, I realized how big a play it was for me,” said Austin. “I was a guy who was seriously on the bubble. Whether it be for the Cowboys or for another team, I knew it was good to have on film for my bank of plays. You’re auditioning not only for the team you’re on, but also for every other team.”
With just the one reception for the preseason, and knowing that the veteran receivers on the 2006 Cowboys roster had already locked-up their roster spots (Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, and Patrick Crayton), Austin knew his best chance to make the roster was on special teams. Not just as a kick returner, but also running downfield and making tackles in coverage.
“Special teams are huge, it’s the only thing that kept me on the team,” he admits. “As a receiver, I was not developed yet. I ran the wrong route on my touchdown catch and got lucky to make the play. I used special teams, running down and being physical, to be on the team and work on my craft as a receiver.
“And once I made the roster as a special teamer, I was able to use my work on ‘scout team’ during the regular season to develop my skills on offense. I know people think scout team is not important. But scout team is used for guys who aren’t quite developed yet, but they get to test their skills every day in practice. I worked against starters like Terence Newman and Keith Davis and Aaron Glenn and Roy Williams for the whole year. I took it to heart and I wanted to get better as a receiver.
“Being able to go against them each day was a big deal for me, so I took it very seriously. Sometimes they didn’t like it because it might be a Thursday practice and I didn’t play the week before so I’m going 100-miles-an-hour. But I used that time to hone my skills and releases and coverage recognition and finding soft spots in zones. The other thing with scout team is that it’s scripted, so the starters know what you’re going to do. So to me it was a challenge to be able to create doubt in their mind, to make them wonder what I was going to do on my route. That just helped me as a player.”
Rick Bowmer via AP
Austin contributed his rookie season on kick returns and coverage units. In a playoff game at the end of his rookie season, he returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in Seattle (the same location as his preseason debut). In the glorious history of the Cowboys, a team with 5 Super Bowl championship trophies, no player had ever returned a kickoff for touchdown in a playoff game…until the rookie from Monmouth.
And through his work during the week on scout team, he developed as a receiver. Like his fellow undrafted rookie agent, Tony Romo, stardom would not come quickly. Austin did not become a full-time starter until midway through the 2009 season. But when he rose, he shot through the stratosphere quickly, being named to the Pro Bowl at the end of that same 2009 season.
Austin went to two Pro Bowls in his eight years in Dallas, and he ended up playing a total of 10 NFL seasons, including short stints in Philly (2014) and Cleveland (2015). Now he’s back in Dallas where he’s working in the scouting department and taking time to mentor young receivers after practice.
Austin knows what it feels like to face long odds. He knows what it’s like to yearn for two or three snaps in a preseason game, to feel the pressure of every snap in practice knowing you may only get nine or ten reps on a weekday afternoon.