Gameday Spotlight: Can Austin Pettis translate the practice field to the playing field?

Austin Pettis heads for the corner of the end zone in a red zone drill.

The preseason is only two weeks old, but already a troubling narrative is emerging for rookie wideout Austin Pettis in a Rams uniform: awesome in practice, disappears on gameday.

After running routes from all three wide receiver positions and earning first team reps in practice, a succession of drops and missed connections under the low-wattage spotlight of the Lindenwood scrimmage and the preseason opener have Rams fans scratching their heads.

Pettis’ struggles with dropped balls are surprising for a player who built a reputation of being a clutch playmaker with the Boise State Broncos, and whose greatest attribute, according to scouts such as Matt Waldman, are his hands.

Hands consistent in school. Probably too much to process for him right now.

Adapting to the pro game is notoriously difficult, and there’s no doubt that the various permutations and multiple reads of McDaniels’ offense make it easy to overthink while you’re on the field.

In the two seconds between the snap and an incoming pass, all kinds of thoughts can be going through your head. “Did I read the coverage the same way that Bradford did? Did I get a clean break off the snap so I can cut right after nine steps? Gotta get my depth right, coach will be watching this on tape. Seven, eight, CUT NOW! Damn this guy is right on me! Where’s the ball? Oh. Damn.”

The great players like Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt can think through this process fluidly, reducing the reads and jukes and cuts to a background music, an orchestration in concert with their quarterback. (It’s no surprise that retired NFL players like Jerry Rice have a second act on shows like Dancing with the Stars.) This grace and balance in the game allows them to separate thinking from doing, and not let the two interfere with each other.

Holt provided a master class on this skill in the player-organized offseason workouts:

He was doing something today,” Amendola said after Tuesday’s practice. “He ran a route and he was talking in the middle of his route telling us how to do it. And he ran a great route at full speed. And somebody was guarding him too, which was pretty amazing.”

Is that saying that Pettis needs to start a stream-of-conscious self-narration like an old Max Fleisher Popeye cartoon while he’s running routes? No, but he is going to need to be able to separate mind from body long enough to start making plays on the playing field. Plays that we know he has the ability to make.

Pre-draft scouting reports consistently highlighted Pettis’ “toughness in crowds,” and ability to make adjustments to the football that are “more difficult, if not impossible for others.” His toughness and hands could project his career as an NFLer anywhere from the next Ricky Proehl to the next Hines Ward.

But he has to make the team first, and that starts by making catches – especially on the third-down throws that Bradford has been targeting him on. Says Waldman:

The one thing I liked about Pettis was his hands. If he doesn’t have that, he’s in a big hole to climb.