Once face of the franchise, Williams facing hazy future

IRVING, Texas -- To know Roy Williams is to misunderstand him.

Six years ago, he was given the opportunity to become the face of the Dallas Cowboys. As a rookie in 2002, he was one of the few bright spots on a 5-11 team, and his No. 31 jersey quickly overtook No. 22 in the Texas Stadium crowd.

But now as the Cowboys prepare to christen a $1 billion stadium in 2009, there's a good chance Williams won't be around for the grand opening. How could a player with so much promise fall off the map? Well, it's important to go back to the beginning.

In his first two years, Williams became one of the most feared players in the NFL because of his punishing style. Turns out, though, that Jerry Jones and his scouting department overlooked flaws in Williams' game leading up to the 2002 draft.

In recent conversations with men who were privy to those discussions, I learned that former secondary coach Clancy Pendergast, now the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, had serious concerns about Williams' ability to learn the defense. When he traveled to the Oklahoma campus and put Williams on the dry erase board, he quickly learned that it would be a difficult transition for the college All American. Veteran scout Jim Hess, a former college coach, agreed with Pendergast's assessment.

Jones and his right-hand man, Larry Lacewell, were able to look past that potential flaw because they knew Williams would be playing next to Darren Woodson, one of the league's best safeties.

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The Cowboys thought Williams could be much like John Lynch was in the vaunted Tampa 2 defense, but even more dynamic. And for the first two years of his NFL career, they were rewarded. Playing next to Woodson in 2002 and 2003, Williams was a bone-crunching playmaker. Running backs and receivers flinched when they sensed his arrival.

Williams began his string of five Pro Bowl appearances in 2003, although you can make a strong argument that the past couple have been on name-recognition alone. The 2004 season started off with a bust when QB Quincy Carter was released only days into training camp. The story line that got buried was that Woodson's injured back was preventing him from practicing. The Cowboys placed him on the physically unable to perform list and hoped for the best.

But it was apparent from the start that the odds were against Woodson, and he was eventually forced into retirement. Suddenly Williams was thrust into a leadership role in a secondary that included cornerback Terence Newman, a first-round pick in 2003, and safety Keith Davis, who had starred in NFL Europe the previous spring.

"I take a lot of blame for what Roy has had to endure," said Woodson, now an ESPN analyst.

He could change the whole outlook of a game because of his ability to separate players from the ball. But we probably kept it too simple for him.

--Darren Woodson, ESPN analyst and former Cowboys defensive back, on tutoring the young Roy Williams

"[Former defensive coordinator Mike] Zimmer and myself just wanted him to be a football player when he first came into the league. He didn't have to think about where he needed to be because we made the scheme pretty simple. He could just come downhill and wreak havoc. I'd never seen a player with that type of ferocity. But I didn't involve him in what the corners were doing and some of the linebackers' gaps. He could change the whole outlook of a game because of his ability to separate players from the ball. But we probably kept it too simple for him."

In Woodson's defense, he thought he had at least two more seasons left in the league before his injury forced him from the game.

"I would have approached it differently if I'd known," Woodson said. "He looked at me like a big brother, and we were always honest with each other. He used to ask me why I was in such a bad mood during practice, and I'd say, 'This is the way I am in practice.' We could say anything."

Though he has the capacity to be gracious and outgoing, Williams -- who had an excused absence from recent Cowboys' voluntary workouts -- often has been a brooding presence in the locker room. A few years ago, a Dallas-area TV station paid him a large amount of money to appear every Sunday night during the season. In a rare moment, Williams once questioned his teammates' effort following a loss and suggested some of them had surrendered. But when reporters swirled at his locker the next day, Williams immediately backed off those comments.

It has almost become cliché to bash Williams' performance in Dallas. But the side of the player that not enough people hear about is his charitable work. Members of the organization say he donates vast amounts of money to underprivileged children around Christmastime, but for the most part he does it in a private manner.

But for all the good he does, he's fallen out of favor with the local media, not because of his play, but because of his pettiness.

When a Dallas Morning News reporter approached his locker after a road win against the New York Giants last season, Williams angrily told him that he wouldn't be allowed to ride the team plane home because he'd picked against the Cowboys in the newspaper. Since the paper's policy always has been to fly separately from the team, it was moot. But it didn't prevent Williams from causing a scene in the locker room.

When another Dallas reporter wrote that Williams wasn't meeting expectations three years ago, the player responded by authoring a rambling note that contained several expletives. He had it posted during an open locker room session. Williams never officially admitted to writing the note, but teammates pointed to him.

All of this serves as a backdrop for the latest chapter in Williams' strange path. About a month ago, he went on Michael Irvin's local radio show and admitted that he often hoped quarterbacks wouldn't throw the ball his way in certain coverages. Head coach Wade Phillips quickly tried to do damage control, saying he wasn't troubled by Williams' comment and had a different interpretation of what the player said. But behind closed doors, there is growing concern about Williams' future at Valley Ranch.

Despite being the eternal optimist, Jones, I've been told, is open to the idea of a future without Roy Williams.

If that's true, it is a pretty remarkable development. When Jones hired Phillips to take over, he thought Phillips' 3-4 defense would be a much better fit for Williams. The new coaching staff talked about putting Williams in a position to do what he does best: making plays downhill. In 2006, he had been beaten repeatedly on deep balls. In the defense run by Phillips and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, Williams didn't get beat deep, but still ended up allowing five touchdowns.

Not long after Williams confessed to Irvin, Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis came to Williams' defense in a national radio interview.

Ellis said he was concerned because Williams was choosing to work out by himself at 6 a.m. and wasn't interacting with his teammates. He also shared that the safety had been frustrated with having to learn a new 3-4 scheme, which went directly against some of the comments Williams made when Phillips was hired.

At some point, Stewart finally had enough. He ordered a meeting at Valley Ranch with Williams earlier this month and said it was very productive. Williams later agreed with that assessment. He believed the media and the coaching staff were against him, but he's apparently more comfortable for the time being. And Stewart says Williams probably received too much criticism last season.

"In breaking down the film, he's done a lot more good than bad," Stewart said. "He's very capable of doing everything we ask him to do. I believe he had 100 tackles, and that's a busy guy. If we can get him to stop horse-collaring guys, I think he's very, very capable of playing at a high level in our system."

We've got to drill him on his approach to the ball carrier. A lot of it is 'want to.' If I get suspended or fined $100,000, I'm going to want some alternatives to that style of tackle.

-- Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart on trying to break Roy Williams' horse-collar tackling habit

Stewart said Williams has a good feel for defending against the inside run and talked about him "coming downfield heavy-handed," which is another way of saying that Williams remains a punishing defender. The horse collar topic is one that will follow him the rest of his career. After all, he was the man who "inspired" the 15-yard penalty, and it's still not out of his system.

"We've got to drill him on his approach to the ball carrier," Stewart said. "A lot of it is 'want to.' If I get suspended or fined $100,000, I'm going to want some alternatives to that style of tackle."

Most of Williams' teammates gathered this past week for organized team activities. Williams had an excused absence because he'd already planned a family trip before the dates were released.

Unfortunately, a couple of his teammates weren't quite as understanding. I talked to two players who were shocked Williams didn't show up -- especially in light of recent events. One player, a starter on defense, said that most players assume that "voluntary" OTAs will occur in mid- to late May and plan their schedules accordingly. They want to be supportive of Williams, but he's not making it easy.

There are even rumblings at Valley Ranch that Williams could be released sometime after June 1, but a high-ranking member of the organization told me that he will be on the roster for the entire 2008 season. After that, all bets are off.

Jones recently made some glowing remarks about Williams' future at a team golf outing. And I do believe that Jones still is rooting for Williams because his release would complete a remarkable fall for someone who was supposed to be one of the best safeties in the game.

Is there a market for Roy Williams? We'll save that for another column.

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com