WR should've gotten message long ago

IRVING, Texas -- Roy Williams has been underachieving almost since the moment he was acquired by the Dallas Cowboys, a flawed player both enabled by a general manager unwilling to admit he made a bad trade and empowered by a head coach who ignores problems and seldom demands accountability.

It took the offensive coordinator denying him playing time and the quarterback refusing to throw him the football for Williams to finally take responsibility for his own failure and to vow improvement.

This is what the $9 million receiver who cost the Cowboys first- and third-round draft choices said the day after Miles Austin -- the player who began the season as his backup -- became a Pro Bowler: "If I continue to do the things that I've been doing, then I'm going to mess around and be on the sideline, playing special teams.''

While I respect the fact Williams is accepting blame, the message he is sending is one he should have been receiving long ago. Owner Jerry Jones or head coach Wade Phillips or, preferably both, should have at least threatened to bench him long ago.

Maybe it would have motivated Williams to do more, which is something he obviously admits is possible since he declared he would start Wednesday working after practice to catch balls. In fact, didn't Williams promise he and Tony Romo would begin doing that weeks ago and continue for as long as necessary to develop a rapport? It is of almost no value coming from a player with one game remaining before the postseason.

Williams would have already gotten the message if the Cowboys made decisions on playing time based on the proper criteria. If roles were determined by performance rather than how many draft choices the franchise invested or the ridiculous amount of guaranteed money a player was owed.

What did the Cowboys have to lose? Williams was not some slumping player who needed reassurance. He has never performed in Dallas as Jones imagined upon deeming him the ideal long-term replacement for Terrell Owens.

Williams has not destroyed the locker room as did Owens, but he has dropped the ball just as often. His unreliability has put the Cowboys at great risk and forced them to alter game plans and play-calling.

Nobody in the NFL has dropped more passes than Williams' 10 this season, an appalling total that Williams might have increased except for Jason Garrett rotating other receivers at his position and Romo virtually cutting him off altogether.

Williams has produced a reception on just 44.7 percent of the balls thrown him, a success rate worse than all but five other players targeted at least 50 times.

Two weeks ago, in the upset of the New Orleans Saints, Romo never threw Williams another pass after he dropped a critical third down. Last week against the Washington Redskins, Romo never looked his direction after his second drop of the first half.

"I have to get the confidence of my quarterback, because I didn't get a look after the first half,'' Williams said. "I didn't get a look in the second half. That's telling me that my quarterback has lost confidence in me, and so has the coordinator as far as calling plays for me. That's not on them. I don't blame them. I blame myself. I've got to get my [expletive] together and try to help this team win some games in the playoffs.''

Even if Jones quietly declares to his coaching staff that Williams could not be benched, Phillips further diminishes his own credibility in the locker room and merely insults the public when Williams drops two balls against the Redskins and the response of the head coach is to laughably praise Williams for playing hard. Then Phillips points out that Williams made one of the team's three scoring plays. Nobody earning that kind of salary should be praised for effort. There are too many variables in football. A legitimate head coach never allows effort to be one of them.

One of the balls Williams dropped was a deflection, a ball knocked high into the night sky that became Romo's only interception of December. That very kind of misplay could doom an entire team if it happened at the wrong time in the playoffs.

It is instances like his mishandling of the Williams situation all season that reveals the most worrisome flaws in Phillips as a head coach. The problem with coaches who accept mediocrity from their players is that it becomes exactly what they get, often even from players capable of producing significantly more.

"I've got to do something out of the ordinary instead of just playing my game and letting the ball come to me,'' Williams said. "This season has been weird for me. I've always said that I'll take less stats for more wins, and that's what's happened. I think I'm getting tested by the man upstairs, seeing if I'm really what I say I am. I really think I am. Of course, I want to make plays. I want to be the best player on the field when I'm out there. It's just not working right now.''

It could be argued that the most significant contribution Williams has made to the a season in which the Cowboys could win the NFC East is that he suffered a timely injury and missed a game that allowed Austin's rise to prominence.

Former coach Jimmy Johnson told me earlier this season he once warned Jones about the dangers of overestimating a player like Williams, a wide receiver who statistics were falsely inflated because he had the benefit of playing for a bad team constantly forced to play from behind. Johnson felt it increased the difficulty of accurately evaluating a player's ability to contribute to a winning team.

The Cowboys ignored their own internal reports on Williams that Jones should be leery of paying huge money to a player with a questionable work ethic who had never significantly improved himself.

People show you who they are all the time. Eventually, you have to believe them.

Unless Williams somehow becomes a dramatically different player, this will be one of the most expensive mistakes in franchise history. The Cowboys still owe Williams more than $21 million in guaranteed money.

Not only has Williams' ineptitude provided Austin the opportunity to become the Cowboys' most feared offensive player, but Jones is already confronting the reality that Austin is seeking $10 million a season to sign a long-term contract extension, according to league sources. Unless the Cowboys remove Williams and his guaranteed money from the roster, they are going to be taking an indefensible position on negotiations with Austin.

Austin is the player Roy Williams was supposed to be. Meanwhile, Williams is trying to avoid becoming the next Sam Hurd, a wide receiver whose career is devoted to covering kickoffs.

"I still feel like I've got the best hands in the league, top three at least,'' Williams said. "Today, I'm going to get back on the Juggs, get back to fundamentals, catch 100 balls after practice and see if it pays off on Sunday. ...

"The only way I can shut everybody up is to play my game. One of these days, it has to happen.''

Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.