Williams in Cowboys' crosshairs
CARROLLTON, Texas -- There is one important thing to remember about the Dallas Cowboys as they conduct their offseason workouts: Their success this season does not hinge on the play of wide receiver Roy E. Williams.
He is certainly going to play a huge role in their passing game. He'll also face his share of scrutiny after Dallas acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Detroit Lions last fall. But please don't think he's the only player on Dallas' roster who needs to raise his game. There is no shortage of Cowboys who fall into that category.
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The problem, of course, is that plenty of eyes are focused on Williams this offseason. It makes sense, too. Jaws dropped around the NFL when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave up a boatload of draft picks -- first-, third- and sixth-round selections in the 2009 draft and a seventh-rounder in 2010 -- to acquire a receiver who had produced just one 1,000-yard campaign in five pro seasons. The skepticism then grew after the Cowboys released wide receiver Terrell Owens earlier this offseason. Now it seems like Williams has no shortage of critics, including former Cowboys stars.
Troy Aikman claimed the trade for Williams would be "one of the biggest busts in the history of the league" if Williams didn't become a dominant receiver. Emmitt Smith recently hinted that the Cowboys have no explosiveness in their passing game now that Owens has been banished. Deion Sanders also has shown about as much love for Williams as Rush Limbaugh displays for Democrats. Sanders openly questioned Williams' work ethic.
Now there's no question that such issues arise when a team invests so much in a player, especially one who works for a franchise as visible as Dallas. But it's also starting to sound as if Williams is becoming a likely scapegoat for any offensive problems Dallas might have this season.
"I don't know why those guys started thinking I can't play," said Williams, who also signed a five-year, $45 million extension after joining Dallas. "When I've been back here to play against the Cowboys, I've usually played well [Williams has 11 receptions, 176 yards and two touchdowns in two career games against Dallas]. But I guess I'll just have to show them what I can do."
It's not hard to see why Williams has his critics. After becoming the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft, he had only one dominant season in Detroit (when he caught 82 passes for 1,310 yards in 2006 and earned Pro Bowl alternate status). Williams' first season with the Cowboys didn't help his cause, either.
Acquired in Week 7 of the 2008 season, Williams joined a Cowboys team that was in flux. In Week 6, starting quarterback Tony Romo broke a pinky finger and did not return to action until Week 11. Under replacement Brad Johnson, the Cowboys' offense struggled.
In his Cowboys debut in a Week 7 loss to the host St. Louis Rams, Williams failed to catch a pass.
He finished the Dallas portion of his season with numbers so meager -- 19 receptions for 198 yards and one touchdown in 10 games -- that he still can't recall them without disgust.
But suggesting effort and ability are the only factors in those statistics wouldn't be accurate. For one thing, the Lions had numerous problems at quarterback during Williams' tenure there, and the overall offense was pretty inept, as well. As for Williams' time in Dallas, those struggles likely had more to do with a new environment than anything else. The Cowboys had to get the ball to Owens, Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and an assortment of other players. Williams ultimately got lost in the shuffle.
That's why he's making a more concerted effort to create stronger chemistry with Romo this spring. The two players started working together shortly after the offseason began and Williams already can see the benefits.
"I just feel more comfortable," Williams said. "And I'm not the only one who's feeling that way. Tony is more comfortable with me. [Offensive coordinator] Jason Garrett is more comfortable calling plays for me. We're all developing that trust, and that's something we didn't have last season. Unfortunately, I was the one who wound up looking bad because of it."
Added Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman: "It was tough on Roy last year because he came in the middle of the season and was trying to learn a new system. But you already can see the work he's put in with Tony. He's able to tell Tony how he likes to do things and Tony is able to say what he wants from him. The big thing is that they're able to communicate with each other."
Williams clearly won't lack for opportunities to prove his value this coming season. He is taking over the same role in the Cowboys' offense that Owens occupied, meaning he'll be moved to different areas in various formations to create favorable matchups. Williams has the speed and size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) to be a dominant player in Dallas' system. The question he faces is whether he can turn all that criticism into a positive.
After all, those negative comments just might drive Williams to achieve greatness. Remember, he had grand dreams when this deal went down, especially since he was returning to the state where he starred in high school (Odessa Permian) and college (Texas). The last thing he expected to hear was constant trashing of his ability. Hell, he probably never heard any disparaging words about his play when he was growing up in the state.
But one thing nobody can question about Williams is his focus these days. He has talked about dropping his weight down to 212 pounds, which is what he was listed at as a rookie. He has been wearing his old college number (4) in practice so he can remind himself of his glory days.
Williams also said his only concern is playing on a winning team.
"One thing that really pisses me off," he said, "is when I catch 10 balls and my team ends up losing."
So don't be surprised if Williams thrives in his first full season in Dallas. He knows the scrutiny won't vanish any time soon, but he also realizes he can't control that issue.
All Williams ultimately needs to worry about is one thing: doing his part. If he does that consistently, his NFL tenure in his home state really will be as sweet as he once imagined.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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