INDIANAPOLIS • At best the play was mundane, a 53-yard punt that would result in a second-quarter touchback and put the Rams at their own 20-yard-line.
“Poison! Poison!” someone on the return team screamed, meaning nothing good could come from getting too close to the bouncing ball.
The smallish return man waved off the return, leaving teammates and the Indianapolis Colts thinking the play was all but dead.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher later confessed screaming, “Get away! Get away! Get away!”
It was then that a season of unfortunate bounces offered the Rams a forgiving one. Instead of continuing into the end zone, the ball appeared to reverse course, jumping into rookie dervish Tavon Austin’s hands at the 2-yard line. Many bad things might happen here: a fumble, brutal field position or a punishing hit on a corner of the field among them.
Seconds after waving his teammates away, Austin was in motion up the Rams’ sideline.
An out-of-nowhere block from Chase Reynolds sprung him. The play became a blur — Austin later failed to remember whether he was touched or not — as he found a lane that never took him more than a few feet off the sideline. Fisher, a skeptic seconds before, now screamed, “Go! Go! Go!”
Of course, no one could catch the fastest man on either team, and 98 yards later Austin had given the Rams a 21-0 lead with his first career touchdown return. It also apparently set a team single-play record for exclamation points.
Austin called it both “a great decision” and “a risky decision.” It was risky first, great later.
“It may look like a risky decision but I’m glad he did it,” said fellow rookie receiver and West Virginia alum Stedman Bailey. “It’s been a long time coming for both of us. We know patience is a virtue. I’m glad he broke out today.”
Austin scored three of the nine times he touched the ball Sunday. He dropped a would-be first down on a low first-quarter throw from Kellen Clemens, then manipulated the other eight for 314 all-purpose yards and a once-a-decade performance for some franchises.
Austin came within 22 yards of tying Flipper Anderson’s franchise single-game record for most all-purpose yards.
The Rams may have played well enough in Sunday’s 38-8 blowout that they could have found a way to win without Austin. However, it would not have been as meaningful and it certainly would not have been as fun.
This is why the Rams moved up eight spots in the draft to take Austin with the No. 8 overall selection. To use Fisher’s second impression on the punt return, Austin is a Go player.
“You know he’s not one of those guys you have to hit every block for. He’s going to make guys miss,” Reynolds said. “We go out there every time expecting him to get a touchdown. He’s electrifying. He’s a pleasure to block for. Every time we go out there our mind-set is we’re taking it to the house.”
At their worst, the Rams have repeatedly shown themselves capable of emptying the Edward Jones Dome barely into the fourth quarter.
At their best Sunday, the Rams almost emptied Lucas Oil Stadium with a dominant performance.
A loss would have sent the Rams into their bye week at a squalid 3-7. Their most lopsided win since a 31-point drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in 2003 instead leaves them 4-6 and with a legitimate claim that they might be riding a three-game winning streak if not for late shenanigans against Seattle and Tennessee.
“He’s dynamic that way,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “But of his special ability, his traits and the way he can return, he has the flexibility to do whatever.”
Austin is smaller than a whisper and quick enough to avoid most hard contact. He’s been followed by drops and sometimes has appeared less than assertive on returns. He didn’t catch a pass in the Rams’ Week 9 loss to the Tennessee Titans and averaged only 6.7 yards per reception entering Sunday.
The Rams told the world Austin was special, a game-changer, a jump start for an offense that in recent seasons too often has required 10 plays and six minutes to squeeze out a field goal.
Austin’s three touchdowns covered 236 yards in 38 seconds total. The second occurred on a 51-yard pass that Clemens hung up for Austin to run under with punt-worthy hang time.
“With a guy like Tavon you just throw it as far as you can. There’s really not a lot of thinking,” said Clemens, who blames himself for missing Austin on a similar bomb the previous week.
Clemens found Austin on Sunday in single coverage while the Colts doubled Chris Givens with a safety. Seeing Austin isolated deep in single coverage is candy on the counter. A quarterback’s got to have it.
“He’s lightning in a bottle when he gets the ball in his hands,” Clemens said.
On the Rams’ very next possession Austin sliced across the middle as Clemens scrambled. He caught the ball in stride with 5 yards of cushion on every side. Wide receiver Brian Quick helped with a punishing block. From there, the Colts had no chance of closing as Austin ran untouched for the rest of an 81-yard play that put the Rams up by five scores.
“I was in a lot of space. I was able to turn the jets on,” Austin said.
Playing bad is one thing. Playing bad and boring invites apathy. Austin is supposed to be the tonic for both.
Any player who runs a 4.28 40-yard time at the NFL combine is a threat. Given space, Austin is water running downhill. A defense may cause him to change direction, but stopping him in the open field is virtually impossible.
For too long the Rams’ offense has been considered drab. Austin can change that perception. His job is to turn 5-yard catches into 40-yard touchdowns. His influence on special teams is dramatic enough to force a team to kick way from him or to pooch it, as the Colts eventually did Sunday.
Austin remained mostly potential until Sunday. Penalties had negated his two biggest plays, an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Dallas and a 63-yard touchdown reception against Carolina.
There was the time he left the locker room after an Oct. 6 Jacksonville win still wearing eye black, leaving the impression his frustration had reached hard boil.
Austin never admitted to being on tilt, only that he was in a hurry to meet friends and family.
“It’s kind of difficult but it boils down to patience,” Austin allowed. “I’ve been patient for eight weeks and hopefully it’s my time right now.”
The Rams’ failure to more fully integrate Austin into the offense is one of this year’s great frustrations. Questions about play-calling and the offense’s conservative tilt have followed Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for much of the schedule.
“We still have more to go and it’s not an issue with Tavon,” said Fisher, who hasn't yet thrown open his complete playbook. “We have to use our other weapons and we have to run the football and do other things offensively. We’re working ourselves into some good little packages for him.”
To quote Coach Fish: Go! Go! Go! Exclamation points included.