- Ed Werder, ESPN NFL Insider
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In a recent conversation, former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson considered the question of what percentage of professional football players are capable of properly motivating themselves.
Johnson required less time to form his response than for him to transform the Cowboys from laughingstocks to a Super Bowl dynasty. "You have a handful of players on every team who can do it themselves,'' he said. "The rest need somebody who is always on their rear ends -- and that's why football teams have coaches.''
Whether it is Wade Phillips or Jerry Jones, it seems somebody is sending the wrong message at Valley Ranch. A year after the Roy Williams trade, the Cowboys are getting production out of Roy Williams that is not a whole lot more than they were getting from him the year before the Roy Williams trade.
And yet, when Miles Austin replaces an injured Williams and is productive in a statistical way that no other Cowboys receiver in the history of the franchise has ever been, he is rewarded with a starting position -- but not the one earned on the basis of his performance. It appears the Cowboys will have Austin replace not Williams, but instead, Patrick Crayton, which is unfair to both. Crayton has been slightly more productive than Williams, and now Austin is forced to play out of position as a Z receiver, which some NFL coaches say will be difficult for him.
We wonder why the Cowboys so often seem to project a sense of entitlement?
Williams was hurt exposing himself to injury while trying to catch a poorly thrown Tony Romo pass, and playing for one another is not something the Cowboys seem to do frequently enough. But the reality is that Williams has not performed to expectations, and part of that might be because he has a reputation for being lazy. It seems this is the perfect opportunity for the Cowboys to send a message to him and to everyone else.
Now whether Phillips couldn't bring himself to disappoint Williams, or Jones wouldn't allow the benching of a $45 million wide receiver for whom the Cowboys surrendered first-, third- and sixth-round draft picks, remains unknown. But the message to the locker room is that starting jobs are determined not on the basis of performance so much as pedigree.
Let's compare how the Cowboys handled this situation to how others around the league confront similarly hard decisions.
In New England, three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick benches Joey Galloway and finally cuts the $1.8 million receiver with a guaranteed contract. At the same time, Belichick deactivates linebacker Adalius Thomas even though he's healthy and has a $35 million contract that makes him the most expensive free agent in team history. The Pats replaced him with Junior Seau, whom they had just signed.
In Miami, Bill Parcells instills fear in those at the edge of the Dolphins' roster with weekly tryouts conducted in full view of the current players, most of them glancing across the field to determine whether any of the hopefuls plays their position.
In Denver, Josh McDaniels -- a few weeks into his first NFL head-coaching position -- finds himself at odds with supposed franchise quarterback Jay Cutler. In reviewing tape, McDaniels determines Cutler to be extremely talented but not unique to winning and certainly not bigger than his team-first philosophy. Cutler is traded. That does not end the locker room challenges for McDaniels, who spent eight seasons working for Belichick in New England.
None of this could have been simple or easy for Belichick. Despite being the most successful coach in the league at the moment, Belichick should be sensitive to criticism of any personnel decisions since the departure of personnel czar Scott Pioli has made him more responsible for any failed gambles.
At least when Belichick makes a mistake, he admits it rather than compounding it by pretending it doesn't exist. "Everything's the same for every player," Belichick said. "They've all got the same job: Come in, learn the game plan, be ready to go. Substitutions and playing time are all coaches' decisions; they're not players' decisions. A player's job is to be ready to play, and if he's put into the game, then go out there and play his best. All 53 guys, it's the same for all of them."
It is not, clearly, the same for all 53 players on the Cowboys roster.
Brandon Marshall -- the only other 25-year-old Pro Bowl player on the Denver roster -- decides to protest his contract by making a mockery of the game, and the rookie coach promptly suspends the receiver. That disciplinary action not only unified the Broncos, but it provoked a change in Marshall's behavior. At least for the moment, Marshall is a productive member of an undefeated Broncos team whose record seems to exceed the level of talent on the roster. Nearly everybody is overachieving.
That is called coaching.
In soliciting opinions about the Cowboys from other coaches and executives around the league, I've never heard anybody suggest the team lacks talent. The questions are about locker room leadership, front-office decision-making and the future of the head coach.
The Cowboys made a hard decision on one $9 million receiver when they released Terrell Owens. They are not making the hard decision on another $9 million receiver, and that is a very sensitive situation at Valley Ranch.
It reinforces the wrong message, but it also reveals something about how the Cowboys approach building their team and motivating their players.
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.