By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You know it's bad when your biggest, best contribution to the team is an injury.
This season Dallas Cowboys receiver Roy Williams disappeared for long stretches, dropped passes in crucial situations and yet continually, defiantly insisted on his No. 1 role and his peerless pair of hands. But hey, it wasn't a total fiasco.
On October 11 in Denver, the former Texas Longhorn leaped high for an overthrown pass down the seam by quarterback Tony Romo, got creamed in the torso by Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams and wound up missing the next game with severely bruised ribs.
Who stepped in for Williams? None other than Miles Austin.
With a 10-catch, 250-yard, two-touchdown performance in Williams' absence against the Kansas City Chiefs, Austin launched a breakout that he would parlay into a Pro Bowl season and likely a mega-contract this off-season. But Williams, with his disappointing season—his 38 catches ranked 107th in the NFL—bestowed more credence onto critics who naysayed his arrival from the Detroit Lions in 2008.
The Cowboys acquired him in exchange for first- and third-round draft picks, and owner Jerry Jones awarded him a five-year, $45 million contract extension before his first catch in Dallas. So far, so horrible.
In 26 games as a Cowboy, Williams has had eight touchdowns. In 12 starts this season, Austin scored 11 times.
Last week in the embarrassing 34-3 playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Williams had no catches and was thrown to only once.
"Hell, no," an angry Williams said after the season-ending defeat at the Metrodome. "I didn't get a ball, and I didn't get a look. It just happens. It's frustrating. It pisses me off, especially when we lose and especially when I feel like I have a mismatch. I got a 5-foot-10 corner, but hey, you know, I will continue to work hard in the off-season, and it will come back around."
After clearly losing the confidence of Romo, Williams was targeted only 17 times in the final five games.
Troy Aikman, you have never been more accurate.
"If Roy Williams doesn't turn out to be the player they thought he would be when they made the trade," the former Cowboys quarterback and current Fox analyst said before the season, "I think this would be one of the biggest busts in the history of the league. I just think that when you have the chance to evaluate a player to the degree the Cowboys were able to and then to give up what you gave up, if he's not a No. 1 receiver and not a highly productive player for this team, that's a huge flaw within their scouting department."
And to think, this year started out so tantalizing. In the season-opening victory over the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, Williams took advantage of a blown coverage and streaked 66 yards for a touchdown. But over the next 15 games he managed only 35 more catches. He fumbled in the open field in a loss to Green Bay, dropped a key game-clinching slant in New Orleans and volleyballed an on-target pass into an interception in Washington.
Williams became such an ineffective afterthought, in fact, that Dallas' offense virtually played 10 men against 11 the season's final month.
Though 6 feet 3 inches and 215 pounds, he has trouble escaping press coverage at the line of scrimmage. His routes aren't precise, sometimes appearing lazy. Redskins safety LaRon Landry called Williams "scared." Rarely if ever does he get behind the secondary. And, contrary to his NFL career, this season he dropped double-digit passes when getting both hands on the ball.
It wasn't just what Williams didn't do; it was also what he did.
Early in the season, at least, he steadfastly claimed to still be the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver. He then questioned his role on the team. After an alarming number of drops, he stubbornly boasted about having the best hands in the league. And at times he shrugged almost in surrender.
"Don't ask me," he said at one point. "Right now it's not working for whatever reason. I know I can play better. If I don't, they'll have me out there playing special teams."
Despite a season in which he wore outlandish outfits such as a red-and-black leather Michael Jackson-esque ensemble, led the Cowboys in number of people in his post-game posse and irked some pro football fans by flashing University of Texas "Hook 'em Horns" signs after touchdowns, Williams apparently did just enough right. He diligently blocked downfield on running plays, and his 38 catches were third-most on the team behind tight end Jason Witten (94) and Austin (81).
The production of Patrick Crayton, emergence of Kevin Ogletree, potential of Sam Hurd and allure of Jesse Holley be damned, Jones and head coach Wade Phillips—at least publicly—say they haven't lost faith in Williams, who hasn't lost his starting spot.
Furthermore, the Cowboys won't be searching for receiver help with the 27th overall pick in April's NFL Draft.
"We've got some receivers, enough where if I left the draft without a receiver, I'd sleep like a baby," Jones said at last week's season wrap-up press conference at Valley Ranch.
Williams, who was supposed to take up some slack created by Terrell Owens' departure from Dallas last spring, is guaranteed a $9.5 million roster bonus in March. While that makes many of us nauseous, Jones is confident he'll someday get adequate bang for his buck.
"You look at how he came early and stayed late, tried to improve, looked for ways to maximize his value," Jones said. "All of those things are a major consideration. His contract is a major consideration. You look at that. Do you compromise your football team? No. No...We've got a player that has the will and has the ability."
But what if Williams just—gulp—isn't that good?
I'm not sure he's going to drastically improve in 2010. For the most part he was healthy this season. He went through a full training camp last summer and has now been a Cowboy for a year and a half. The timing should be there. Along with the comfort level. And the production.
The Cowboys had the NFL's second-ranked offense in yardage but were only 14th in points. For the scoring to increase, Williams—with his big body and soft hands—needs to finally emerge as a consistent red-zone target. It's amazing what Dallas accomplished offensively considering the regression of Williams (as well as running back Marion Barber and tight end Martellus Bennett), but it would be unrealistic to think it could continue.
"I've got to find a way to make him better in the whole scheme," Phillips said of Williams. "We still had a prolific offense. It wasn't like it killed us not to have that production, but I think we can have more with him."
You know it's bad when the best thing your coach can say about your sucky season is that it didn't kill your team.