ARLINGTON, Texas -- The star on the side of their helmets and on the center of their home turf constantly makes the Dallas Cowboys feel they've got something extra-terrestrial within reach. With the proximity of that five-pointed glory always staring at those affiliated with the franchise -- from fans to players to coaches to its owner -- the need to find a star (or manufacture one) never seems to subside.
Maybe that's why the Cowboys have been relatively disappointing for more than a decade. They want it all and they're constantly reaching for the bright light instead of cultivating a dim spark, which is why the story of Miles Austin's emergence will be one to follow.
After the wide receiver's dazzling six-catch, 171-yard, two-touchdown effort in the Cowboys' 37-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Austin was thrust into the spotlight. His 10-catch, 250-yard, two-touchdown performance against Kansas City two weeks ago, which preceded a bye before this blowout, wasn't a fluke. This guy is for real. He's Dallas' No. 1 target. Not Roy Williams. Not Jason Witten. The Cowboys have won consecutive games for the first time this season during his breakout stretch.
Austin Powers. More Miles to the (Ten) Gallon. The headlines are already being printed.
Instead of a star, though, Dallas may actually be developing a player. It mined the undrafted free-agent pool in 2006, signed a potential kickoff returner, and shaped and prepared him for what it takes to succeed in the NFL. It added -- at high costs -- receivers (Terrell Owners, Roy Williams) to play ahead of him. Now, his time has come.
"My mindset never changes, no matter where they got me; kickoff, kickoff return, wherever," Austin said. "I don't think about things like that. I go in, get my job done, try my hardest every day. I don't think about, 'Is my time going to come?' I only control what I can control and that's going to work every day and trying my hardest."
As politically correct and canned as Austin's answer may have sounded, picture a 10-year-old kid who just won Whack-A-Mole at the County Fair holding his prize stuffed animal saying what Austin said. Now you're getting the picture. This is a guy enjoying the fruits of his labor, who may have no clue how bright the lights are starting to get.
A few lockers down, Williams, who wore black high-waters, a red, zippered, leather Members Only jacket, and a black fedora in tribute to Michael Jackson, said Austin did what an NFL receiver was supposed to do Sunday. Williams seemed legitimately happy that Austin all but Moonwalked his way through the Falcons' secondary.
Mind you, this is the Roy Williams who was drafted in the first-round from Texas, then acquired from Detroit last season -- when the Cowboys gave up first- and third-round draft picks and extended a $45 million contract -- praising a guy for doing what most thought he was going to do and who he was going to be. Austin, who played collegiately at Monmouth, is big, fast, breaks tackles, makes catches in traffic and gets into the end zone (he had 59-yard and 22-yard TD catches vs. the Falcons).
Austin's numbers this season: 21 catches, 502 yards with five touchdowns. Williams: 12 catches, 230 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers, for the most part, are better than the guy Williams was supposed to replace, Terrell Owens, as well. T.O., now with Buffalo, has 18 catches for 242 yards and a touchdown. Combined, Owens and Williams don't surpass Austin's yardage total and have fewer than half his touchdowns -- and Austin just made his second career start against Atlanta.
Instead of reaching for the stars, maybe the Cowboys have finally discovered the way to finding one is to coach up a guy who's earned the opportunity.
"He's a guy who's had ability and we recognized that all along, but he's worked very hard to be a more consistent player and it's showing up," Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "You just keep banging away. It's something we talk about with all our guys. You've got to be ready to practice every day and you've got to be ready to play every Sunday and he's certainly working the right way and it's good to see it's showing up for him on Sundays."
Austin's potential isn't as underground as his career has been. The Jets flirted with him last summer when he was a restricted free agent, but he eventually re-signed with the Cowboys. Low-budget insurance, the Cowboys figured. At this point, it looks like about as deft of a personnel move as they've made in awhile.
The jolt Austin has provided has also moved Dallas to 4-2. That's a good place to be with only New Orleans, Denver and Indianapolis remaining unbeaten and the other teams with the Cowboys in the NFC East -- other than Washington -- posting winning records. Dallas is back in the discussion after convincingly winning a game against a legitimate opponent in Atlanta, whose own path to the playoffs took a blow, coupled with the Saints' comeback victory over Miami.
The Cowboys didn't enter that discussion until Austin propelled them with a 59-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that gave Dallas a 10-7 lead. The offense was shaky before then, but afterward it simply was a machine. Dallas punted just three times, once after its first two possessions.
His burst created calls for him to be the team's No. 1 receiver, even though a designation hardly seemed important to him.
"Everyone's a No. 1 option," he said (remember, Whack-A-Mole winner). "Everyone's obviously going to try and be that, but we're going to go out as a team and as a team we need everybody. It's not right to label anybody because next week, Sam Hurd can go out and get 300. You never know how things are going to work out. I don't label myself like that. I go wherever the coaches tell me to go. I run the route they tell me to run and I try to make a play when I can make it."
From T.O. to this? You think some folks aren't glad he's gone?
Where Austin's story proceeds is unknown. There have been many flashes in the pan and many guys who simply hit their stride at the right time. One of the most important things for Austin might be to not get caught up in the illumination that consumes the Cowboys. His quarterback, Tony Romo, trekked a very similar path to earn a starting job and all the hype, praise, rewards, failures, criticism and expectations that come with it.
It's a daily journey in Dallas. So much so, team owner Jerry Jones said before the game that beating Atlanta would be a measure of legitimizing the Cowboys. Austin downplayed that with a reality check he might want to keep in mind should he continue to produce like he has.
"You're not validated until you're in the playoffs, win games in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl," he said. "Then you're validated."