Commentary

Williams gets a pass, hasn't earned it

Cowboys WR has backing of coach, owner, but others are challenged to earn their jobs

Updated: March 3, 2010, 9:54 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips want to make it clear that complacency will not be tolerated at Valley Ranch this offseason. The key to enforcing that for the Dallas Cowboys is competition.

Yet the most disappointing player on the roster apparently gets an exemption. Confused? Join the club.

My bad for mistaking Phillips' meaningless coachspeak for a firm hand regarding receiver Roy Williams. Phillips didn't intend his comment that the Cowboys would "play the best player, no matter what" to indicate that Williams' starting job was in jeopardy, even though it came in response to a question about whether Patrick Crayton or Kevin Ogletree could claim that spot.

How foolish to think that a receiver with a $45 million contract and 38 receptions this past season would have to earn the right to start opposite Pro Bowler Miles Austin. Just in case there was any doubt, Jones cleared it up when asked whether Williams could be benched: "No. No. A big no."

That came minutes after Jones vowed significant personnel changes were coming, saying he wanted his players to be nervous. Perhaps he meant only players who weren't acquired in blockbuster trades over the past two years and guaranteed eight figures in 2010.

The Cowboys send a mixed message by touting the importance of internal competition but refusing to even consider forcing Williams to fight for his job. Is it really that ridiculous to think Williams might not be the second-best receiver on the roster?

First of all, let's stop pretending Williams had a phenomenal track record when the Cowboys gave up two premium draft picks for him. He had one 1,000-yard campaign in four full seasons with the Detroit Lions. That came under offensive coordinator Mike Martz, whose pass-happy scheme made 1,000-yard receivers out of spares like Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald.

Williams is a guy who has 57 catches for 794 yards and eight touchdowns in 25 games with the Cowboys. Crayton put up similar numbers (50 catches, 697 yards, seven touchdowns) in his only full season as a starter. Williams and Crayton had similar statistics this past season despite Crayton being targeted 19 fewer times.

Ogletree, as an undrafted rookie, earned playing time at Williams' expense in two-receiver sets late in the season. He's much more of a big-play threat than Crayton or Williams, who had great stopwatch speed coming out of Texas but isn't nearly as quick, explosive and elusive as Ogletree.

Crayton and Ogletree also have something very important that Williams does not: Tony Romo's trust. Williams, whose flaws don't include a lack of intelligence, said as much toward the end of the season, noting that he basically got the ball thrown his way only when blitzes forced Romo's hand.

While Williams had a reputation for laziness with the Lions, it was Ogletree's work ethic that Jones challenged while sitting on his luxury bus outside the NFL combine Sunday.

"If he comes in and works as hard as Miles Austin worked, then he's got a real upside," Jones said. "If he kind of floats in and floats around during our offseason and [organized team activities], then he might not see a roster spot. I'm serious."

Jones and Phillips repeatedly have put the onus on the coaching staff to figure out how to maximize Williams' talent. Never mind that Austin and Terrell Owens have had Pro Bowl seasons with Jason Garrett calling the plays.

Phillips said Friday that Williams has "to take part of it, too," although that could have been just more meaningless coachspeak.

When a coaching staff willingly accepts the brunt of the blame for a player's shortcomings, how can it hold that player accountable?

"Competition does a lot of that," Phillips said.

However, in Williams' case, the Cowboys hope coddling him works while they hold the rest of the roster to a higher standard.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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