IRVING, Texas – The solution for a nightmare is simple: You wake up.
But when your career is a nightmare, the solution is far more complicated.
Welcome to Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams' situation. Williams has gone from celebrated returning son to a guy who looks almost as if he has forgotten how to play – so much so that the final judgment of Williams' career may rest on his ability to turn things around this year.
"It's been a nightmare," said the native of Odessa, Texas, which is roughly 350 miles from Dallas. "That's the truth. I'm not going to hide from it. I understand the business. … I thought this was going to be a dream. It's been a nightmare."
Williams came to the Cowboys in a celebrated deadline trade in 2008, fetching a nice ransom by today's standards both for Detroit (the Lions got first-, third- and sixth-round picks from the Cowboys in exchange for Williams and a seventh-rounder) and Williams (he got $27 million guaranteed as part of a six-year, $54 million deal).
Dallas owner Jerry Jones was filled with glee that day at an NFL owners meeting when he completed the Williams trade. Instead, the Cowboys went nowhere that season and Williams has produced journeyman numbers. In 25 games with Dallas, Williams has 57 catches for 794 yards and eight touchdowns.
Compare that to Williams' first four seasons in Detroit after being the No. 7 overall pick in 2004. He averaged 61 catches for 913 yards and seven touchdowns a season.
As much as Cowboys fans love to celebrate the Herschel Walker trade in 1989 that launched the great run of the 1990s, Williams is almost the antithesis of that deal. No, Williams didn't cost as much as Walker gained, but Williams has fallen so far short of expectation that it's a joke. As a result, he's been forced to find a solution.
Earlier this offseason, Williams called together his family and advisors for a meeting on what to do. Agent Ben Dogra came to Texas to meet with Williams, his mother and the rest of his family.
"We talked about having a plan," Williams said. "What am I going to do? How am I going to turn this whole thing around? … What's happened here, it's on me to figure it out. It's on me to fix it."
The essence of the plan was simple and pointed: work harder than ever before toward becoming the player Williams believes he can be.
"What we basically said is this is a critical year for Roy. He's either going to be the great player in Dallas or the Cowboys are going to go a different direction, we all know that," Dogra said, referring to the fact that the team has Miles Austin(notes) as its No. 1 receiver returning and first-round pick Dez Bryant(notes) coming in to develop. "Let's have a plan so he can achieve greatness, do what you have to do to be a great player. Roy can walk away from the game right now. He has all the money he needs, but this is about what's inside of him, what he wants to be."
By the end of this season, Williams will have made the entire $27 million he was guaranteed by the Cowboys, who are paying him $13.5 million this year regardless of whether he plays for them. Coupled with what Williams made during his time in Detroit, he will have made nearly $50 million in seven years.
The problem for Williams is that during his time in Detroit, he would usually leave in the offseason to do his conditioning on his own. Couple that with the lower expectations that have developed in Detroit and you had a player who wasn't necessarily prepared to succeed once he got to Dallas.
"I would go back home and train and that always worked. Now, I'm here and I'm working out every day, even pumping iron a lot which I never had to do," Williams said. "This is the hardest I've ever worked."
The Cowboys hierarchy has noticed the change this offseason.
"He's in here working and he has a good attitude," Dallas coach Wade Phillips said. "That's what we ask of our guys and he really does it. … I know he's struggled, but you wouldn't know it from his attitude."
But this is not all about conditioning and speed. Some of it has to do with personalities. Williams is the type of person who is supportive of teammates to the point of being deferential. He did that with Calvin Johnson(notes) in Detroit, saying from Day 1 how great Johnson would be. He's doing that with Bryant this year.
"Dez doesn't even know how good he can be," Williams said in one of his typically effusive comments about a guy who could end up taking time from him. "The dude is scary. The dude is good and he doesn't even know it yet. Once the light bulb goes on he will probably be the best in the league. … He's a man among boys. He's got big hands. Real big hands. When he shakes my hand, his fingers come up to my elbows."
Williams did the same thing to an extent with Terrell Owens(notes) in 2008, when the Cowboys turned into a football version of "Mean Girls." Williams tried to be the good guy to Owens and was perceived as being on Owens' side in the battle with quarterback Tony Romo(notes) and tight end Jason Witten(notes), several sources said.
As a result, Williams and Romo have been slow to get on the same page. Last season, Romo threw toward Williams 86 times, but they managed to connect only 38 times. That's a success rate of only 44 percent. There were times that the two looked like they had rarely practiced together.
That has meant that Witten and Austin have emerged as primary targets. After Austin flashed greatness last season, Williams' role faded even faster. For the season, Romo threw toward Austin 124 times and Austin finished with 81 catches (65 percent). The gap between Williams and Austin was particularly huge in the final three games of the season, when the Cowboys were pressing for momentum going into the playoffs. Williams had eight passes thrown his way (he caught two). Austin had 31 and he caught 23.
"That's the problem on this team when you don't have success right away, somebody else is going to get the ball in a hurry," Phillips said. "If Roy doesn't catch it, Tony is looking at Austin or Witten. … It's a tough deal."
In this case, it has become a nightmare.