ROY WILLIAMS is no stranger to the outsized pressures that come with playing football in the Lone Star State. The Odessa native thrived as a receiver at Permian High—the West Texas powerhouse of Friday Night Lights fame—and set numerous pass-catching records as a Texas Longhorn. He grew up rooting for the Cowboys and became one last fall. "Coming back home was easy for me because I'm here with family, and with fans who are like my family because they've cheered for me most of my career," says Williams, a first-round pick of Detroit in 2004.
Whether he'll continue to feel the love depends on his ability to justify Dallas's acquisition of him at midseason in 2008. Just before the October trade deadline the Cowboys sent three future picks to Detroit for Williams, then signed him to a five-year, $45 million contract that effectively minted him as their No. 1 receiver, long-term. That made Terrell Owens expendable, and he was unceremoniously released in March.
The change makes the receiving corps younger (Williams is 27, T.O. 35) and creates chances for understudies Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin and Sam Hurd—and it eliminated the team's most grating distraction. "It's not because he doesn't mean well," player personnel boss Stephen Jones says of Owens. "I just don't think he can help himself."
At 6'3" Williams is just as tall as the man he replaces and just as physical with defensive backs at the line, but he lacks the downfield speed and separation that make Owens a regular double- and sometimes triple-team target. Those limitations didn't keep Williams from producing in Detroit, where he scored 29 touchdowns in 4½ seasons, but they have kept him from rising to the level of T.O., whose 38 TD catches from 2006 through '08 were the most in the league over that span.
Williams didn't even remotely approach Owens's production in the 10 games they played together last year—Williams had only 19 catches for 198 yards and a TD while hobbled with a foot injury, inviting immediate comparisons with Joey Galloway, another subprime wideout on whom Dallas had mortgaged its future. To distance himself from the criticism, Williams took a few pages out of the T.O. book (albeit the less dramatic first edition) in the off-season. First he worked on his body, shedding seven pounds to get to 208. Then he worked on Tony Romo. "My thing was getting in his hip pocket and letting him see that I'm a likable person, that he can talk to me about anything," says Williams, who spent four weeks getting to know the QB on and off the field.
Despite the added familiarity, Williams is reluctant to put much emphasis on the likely jump in his stats. "I had 82 catches and 1,310 yards and seven touchdowns my Pro Bowl year  in Detroit, and we were 3--13. It takes a lot of people other than just me." To that end the Dallas offense will become more methodical, increasing the workload of running backs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice while using tight ends Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett to exploit mismatches in the intermediate passing game. In theory this balanced approach should keep turnovers down, extend defenses and showcase the Cowboys' underused weapons. "It'll spread catches more evenly, instead of just having one guy be the focus," says Austin, who after battling knee injuries for most of last year is poised for a breakout '09.
The crushing expectations on America's Team will be even greater this year with the opening of its $1.15 billion stadium and the pressure to win its first postseason game since the 1996 season (not to mention preserve Wade Phillips's future as coach). But the Texas heat is nothing Williams can't handle—or isn't welcoming. "I'm trying to win now," he says. "I'm just happy to be on a team that can make something happen."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: WADE PHILLIPS
70--49 in NFL, third season with Cowboys
TE Martellus Bennett (20 rec., 283 yards, 4 TDs) will be on the field often as a de facto wideout.
Free-agent moves: Olshansky (Chargers) replaces Chris Canty; Brooking (Falcons) takes Zach Thomas's spot; Sensabaugh (Jaguars) fills Roy Williams's role.
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 9--7
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 21 > 9 > 13
DEFENSE 12 > 5 > 8
13 at Tampa Bay
20 N.Y. GIANTS
28 CAROLINA (M)
4 at Denver
11 at Kansas City
8 at Philadelphia
15 at Green Bay
26 OAKLAND (T)
6 at N.Y. Giants
13 SAN DIEGO
19 at New Orleans (S)
27 at Washington
NFL Rank: 11
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .516
Games against playoff teams: 7
Dallas hasn't had a winning record in December and January since '96—a streak that will be hard to snap given this brutal late-season schedule. But the Cowboys could get off to another fast start with a few winnable road games and two prime-time showcases in their new stadium. Some soft out-of-division defensive matchups should help turnover-prone Dallas as well.
DeMarcus Ware, Linebacker
THEORETICALLY, FILM study should get less intense as a player becomes more experienced, but that hasn't been the case for the 6'4", 262-pound Ware. In his first few years the 2005 first-round pick concentrated on beating the man in front of him. But once coordinators starting using reinforcements to neutralize him, Ware had to shift his focus to beating everyone in front of him. "Now, instead of studying the tackles, I have to look at what blocking schemes teams use against certain defensive formations," says Ware. "I've had to become a smarter player."
There's no doubt he was a better one in '08, when he tied for second in the NFL in forced fumbles (six) and threatened Michael Strahan's sack record, finishing with a league-leading 20. Now he wants to generate even more turnovers. Lacking another top pass-rush threat to draw attention from Ware, coach and coordinator Wade Phillips will keep moving his All-Pro around the field to give him the best shot at the ball. "You can sack a guy and bring up third-and-20, and the offense might still convert," Ware says. "What we want is to get the ball back to our offense. That's what good defenses do."
PHYSICAL PRESENCE Williams (left) has the build of Owens, but not the downfield speed and separation.