You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL
The Las Vegas photo of Miles Austin(notes) showcases his teeth but doesn't really capture a smile. And if you have spent any time around him, you know that's not really his style. His expression seems slightly shocked, and you can almost sense the thought bubbles bursting inside his head: "Tony Romo(notes). Playoffs. Cabo."
The Dallas Cowboys had just blown out the Oakland Raiders on Thanksgiving Day, a game in which Austin had another prolific performance en route to solidifying himself as one of Romo's go-to guys. Now Austin and Romo had taken a day trip to Vegas for a charity function, and then gone to a nightclub to relax. Then he noticed the cameras. It wouldn't have been a big deal, but Austin was no fool. He was in the locker room in 2008. He watched from across the room as reporters descended onto Romo like locusts, following the quarterback's playoff bye-week trip to Mexico with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson. He remembered the photos, and how the Big D in Dallas suddenly stood for distraction. So when TMZ spots you in a Vegas nightclub in the middle of a playoff race, it becomes a deer in the headlights moment.
"That was the eye-opener," says a chuckling Austin, whose Cowboys play the rival Philadelphia Eagles in Saturday's NFC wild-card game. "That's why there will be no more Vegas trips during the season for me, even if it is for charity."
A year ago, Austin would have been just another blurry face in the background of the Sin City landscape. However, much has changed in the last few months. The veneer of relative anonymity has been penetrated. He's no longer "that undrafted free agent out of Monmouth" who has some upside. Those days ended on Oct. 11, when Miles got his first career start and obliterated the Kansas City Chiefs for 250 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime. And frankly, they may have ended when Dallas cut ties with Terrell Owens(notes) in the offseason, and owner Jerry Jones made a point of mentioning Austin as a catalyst for the move.
At the league meetings in March, Jones was asked if Austin could replace Owens, and Jones offered up this gem: "We know this, if [Austin] is close, then you're ahead of the game simply because of where they are in their careers. I certainly think he has a chance to be or I would never [have] released Terrell."
By the time it echoed around the meetings in Dana Point, Calif., more than a few mouthfuls of pineapple were reflexively spit out. Miles Austin, the guy with 354 receiving yards and three touchdowns … in three seasons? He of I-AA college fame, and who was panned by scouts as being too slow off the line of scrimmage, having short arms and not being much of a vertical threat? And Jones thought he was going to replace Owens?
Naturally, it wasn't an idea that captivated many outside of Dallas. And it wasn't looking much better after the season's first four games, when Austin had a total of 81 receiving yards and one touchdown. In fact, if it hadn't been for an injury to perceived No. 1 wideout Roy Williams, who was having his own issues, Austin may never have gotten his first start against the Chiefs, and the season could have turned out vastly different for the Cowboys.
Then again, what part of Austin's football career hasn't been a slow start? He didn't play at Garfield High School in New Jersey until midway through his junior season. And that only happened because he came late to school one day and the head coach, who was also the dean of students, gave Austin a pass. In exchange for the good will, Austin, who had starred in track and field, asked for a jersey. Essentially, his career was born out of the need to avoid detention.
Such serendipity remained a common theme. His high school career started too late to attract recruiters, but a tip to the Monmouth coaching staff landed him in college. He steadily blossomed at Monmouth and was stumbled upon by nearby resident Jim Garrett, a Cowboys scout and the father of Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. And when only two scouts – one from the Cowboys and another from the Tennessee Titans – showed up at Austin's pro day, his shot in Dallas was eventually secured. Even this past offseason, when Austin was a restricted free agent, he worked out for the New York Jets but didn't draw a contract offer. So he remained in Dallas, where Williams' injury opened an opportunity.
"That's the way my parents brought me up, working and fighting and going forward," Austin said of his father, Miles Sr. and mother Ann. "Everyone, really. The city of Garfield as a whole kind of brought me up like that. I had so many coaches and teachers looking after me when I was high school and college. That's the approach that was ingrained in me, that it doesn't matter what anyone says and you just have to keep working. All that cliché stuff."
Once Austin got his first start, he didn't relinquish anything. In his final 12 games of the season, he scored 10 touchdowns and produced more receiving yardage (1,239) than any other NFL wideout during that span. And in turn, he helped open up a Dallas offense that had become predictable with its dependence on tight end Jason Witten(notes) in the first month of the season. He also usurped the role of No. 1 receiver from Williams, who still has yet to live up to the massive contract extension Dallas doled out after surrendering several draft picks to acquire him from Detroit in 2008.
Austin's career numbers
"Miles has been huge," Witten said. "A lot of the bracket coverage we saw early in the year, his ability to spread the field – a lot of the time me just being on the same side [of the field] just really exposes the defense, allows us to see what they're going to play. That's opened things up for all of us. His ability to stretch the field at all times has been huge."
That might be the biggest compliment to Austin's development: that he has become an explosive player downfield. Not only can he be the vertical threat that scouts were skeptical of, he has the hands, size and athleticism to give fits to opposing cornerbacks. But he also has the special quality to create big plays, a dangerous element that Owens gave to the Cowboys offense at his peak – something Romo noticed immediately after Austin's destruction of the Chiefs.
"Obviously whenever someone can step up and make plays it makes everybody's job easier," Romo said. "Sometimes I've got to move around in the pocket to help an offensive lineman. Sometimes they've got to block a little longer so I can look a little longer and help the read and everything. Sometimes someone has got to break a tackle. Sometimes someone has got to make someone miss."
And sometimes you've got to keep your head down and just keep moving forward, waiting for that next serendipitous moment. But those might be over for Austin, as he has gone from unproven to unparalleled in only three months. With his first Pro Bowl in hand, and his career officially launched into the league's upper reaches, the deer in the headlights look is long gone.
"It would take something pretty big to really catch me off guard and for me to be like, 'Wow, that's unbelievable,' " Austin says now. "I know how hard I work. I'm not saying I was planning on making the Pro Bowl or anything like that. I'm happy. I just can't say I'm overwhelmed."
For the first time in Austin's career, it's everyone else who can say that.