Never has the importance of impact safeties been more evident than it was on Championship Sunday two weeks ago. Only four teams remained in the hunt for the coveted Lombardi trophy, and each of the four had a safety who was a starter in the Pro Bowl. The Eagles’ Brian Dawkins, the Cardinals’ Adrian Wilson, the Steelers' Troy Polamalu, and the Ravens’ Ed Reed all have a catalytic effect on their respective defensive units. They direct traffic. They make tackles in the backfield. They separate backs and receivers from the football. They pick off passes, and they take them to the house. It was not that long ago that the Dallas Cowboys had a guy like that. The troubling thing is that they still have that guy. The name and the smile are the same, but Roy Williams is no longer the game-changing fire starter he once was.
On October 6, 2001 Oklahoma’s Roy Williams made one of the biggest plays in the history of one of college football’s biggest rivalries. In the fourth quarter with Texas pinned against it’s own goal line, Williams leaped over Texas fullback Brett Robin to disrupt a Chris Simms pass. Williams’ valiant leap, and linebacker Ted Lehman’s consequent pick-six would go on to be known simply as "the play." While his leaping effort cut his image into the minds of casual football fans, he had already been on the radar of NFL scouts. After an impressive showing at the NFL scouting combine, Williams was selected eighth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2002 NFL draft. At last the Cowboys had an enforcer, and the Robin to Darren Woodson’s Batman.
Roy Williams burst onto the scene in 2002. He racked up 85 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 recoveries. He even had 5 interceptions, one of which he returned 85 yards for a touchdown. It's hard to imagine Roy weaving through traffic to run one back 85 yards today isn't it? His sophomore campaign was full of more disruptive plays and enough bone-jarring tackles to earn him a First Team All-Pro selection. Williams was never great in coverage, but your were literally gambling with lives when you threw the ball into his area. He was selected to his second and third Pro Bowls in 2004 and 2005 as the Roy Williams fear factor continued to mask his deficiencies in coverage.
It was not until the 2006 season that Roy's coverage began to become probable cause for concern. He was routinely victimized by tight ends and was caught in trail position on deep ball after deep ball to wide receivers. Teams began to dictate match-ups that forced Williams into man coverage and he became harder and harder for the Cowboys defensive staff to hide. While he was delivering hits worthy of felony charges, his tackling skills eroded. Roy still made the Pro Bowl, but purely as a result of name recognition. Midway through the 2007 season he had become a league wide punch line, and even the big hits were few and far between. Wade Phillips and his staff took Williams off the field altogether in passing situations after Roy's coverage skills proved too poor to even hold down a linebacker spot in the nickel. The 2008 season was a complete wash for Williams, as a twice-broken forearm cause him to miss all but three games.
Roy Williams’ descent has bared the characteristics of the demise of an aging player. It is hard to believe that we are talking about a guy who will not turn 29 until midway through training camp. There is no denying that Roy Williams has dramatically fallen from grace, but there is some debate as to what the cause may be.
Is it possible that Roy has been out of position all this time? As has been the case with a lot of players, Roy Williams may have fooled a few scouts at the combine back in 2002. At an even 6 feet and 219 lbs., a 4.53 forty yard dash probably well exceeded the expectations of many. Maybe the big hits and the great straight-line speed were enough reason for scouts to turn a blind eye to Williams’ marginal change of direction ability - and stiff hips. Roy’s struggles with his weight have been well documented and he has always had the look of a 245 lb. guy trying to be a 220 lb. guy. Almost every training camp there is a story about how Roy dropped 20 lbs. and is quicker than he has ever been. It just seems that he has had Tampa 2 weak-side linebacker written all over him from day one.
Let’s not forget that Tony Romo is not the first Cowboys’ player to have a celebrity girlfriend. In late 2003 Williams began dating Grammy Award winner Kelly Rowland, and the two became engaged in May of 2004. As much as we point the finger at Tony Romo’s high profile relationship in relation to his lack of on-field focus, we have to make the same consideration for Williams. When Jay-Z and Beyonce pop up at your barbecue, your life is no longer normal. By 2006, Roy had the woman he was going to marry and a big fat five-year deal from the Cowboys. It is conceivable that he may have taken his foot off the gas a bit at that point. Add to that a 2006 breakup and Roy has had his fair share of off the field distractions. Not that other players haven’t effectively dealt with similar situations, but it just doesn’t seem that Roy is wired the way that they are. Which brings us to what may be the real issue.
There are more important things in life than football. Unfortunately, the NFL is for men who have yet to reach that conclusion. Roy Williams has been very public in recent years about his religious faith. He has been recently scrutinized for saying that God took his anger away. Of course, Roy is not the only guy in the league with a strong religious faith, but not everyone can balance it the way that Reggie White did. The Falcons’ Byron Hanspard and the Raiders’ Napoleon Kaufman both walked away from the game in their twenties to get closer to God. It’s possible Roy’s decline can be attributed to football no longer being number one in his life, and that is not a bad thing. When Roy Williams’ life has run it’s course, his faith is going to get him a lot farther than his coverage skills. If Roy feels the way that Hanspard and Kaufman felt, then maybe he should follow them.
If this off season spells the end of Roy Lee Williams with the Dallas Cowboys, his career will likely be remembered for what it could and should have been, rather than what it was.