Williams walk risk to playoffs

Friday, August 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WICHITA FALLS – Team Media took a sizable hit this week when it was announced that Kevin Smith is pondering retirement. Scratch another from the roll call of Cowboys' good guys, a list that is struggling to keep pace with this city's five-star restaurants.

As for the team, the Cowboys already were going about the business of replacing Smith. Sure, he started the first two preseason games but in all likelihood, Kareem Larrimore would have had Smith's job by midseason. Now that timetable jumps ahead.

Actually, it is a slightly less popular figure with Team Media whose pondered retirement threatens playoff hopes for America's Team. All those who think the Cowboys can plow ahead without missing a beat while Erik Williams sits at home in slippers and robe reading the classics haven't been paying attention in class.

From a media standpoint, sure, Williams' absence will cause no sleepless nights. I offer no insights into his psyche because I last spoke with him in February 1995. Seated in the players' lounge at Valley Ranch, Williams talked at length about how his nearly tragic auto accident the previous autumn had prompted serious reflection and self-evaluation.

He said he had slowed down, changed his lifestyle and was getting back to the Bible.

"I think the reason I'm here is that God is not through with me,'' Williams said. "He has things in store for me.''

Six weeks later, Williams was arrested for sexual assault of a 17-year-old topless dancer. With that, a certain element of trust faded from the writer-player relationship.

The fact that Williams is about as endearing as an overcaffeinated pit bull has nothing to do with whether the Cowboys need him. In fact, it is precisely why they need him.

Williams has declined from elite status, but he remains a far-above-average tackle. The notion that he moves the Cowboys' offense mostly in reverse with his false start penalties is flawed. He had four last season. That's one a month, and it's also two fewer than Flozell Adams was flagged for on the opposite side.

If, as most speculate, his absence has to do with money, Williams is underpaid compared to other tackles around the NFL. That doesn't excuse his decision not to honor his contract, but when you see Jon Runyan making $6 million per year in Philadelphia, it becomes easier to appreciate the likelihood that Williams feels he's poorly compensated at $1.9 million.

Head coach Dave Campo keeps his focus on the players in camp. But line coach Hudson Houck, who has tutored Williams the last seven seasons that included four Pro Bowl trips, acknowledges that Williams is missed.

"He does a lot of things for this team, not only from the standpoint of playing his position,'' Houck said. "He's a leader on the line and he brings a toughness to the team in that he plays the game as hard as anyone on the team.''

Some would read between the lines and say that Williams plays as dirty as anyone on the team or league, but that's fine, too. It's the reason that players as good as Giants end Michael Strahan are intimidated by Williams.

"We're fortunate in that we have some numbers in the offensive line,'' said Houck. "But obviously if Erik comes back, he gives us more experience, he gives us more toughness, he gives us more depth.''

If Williams doesn't return, the Cowboys' grand plan to return to the offensive glory of yesteryear gets scaled down. Without Williams, they can be good only if they stay injury free in the offensive line, and when was the last time an NFL team got 80 starts from its top five linemen?

"We'd certainly like to have him back,'' Houck said. "If we don't, we just keep moving.''

A little more slowly, one suspects.

No one knows when and if the "Welcome Back, Erik'' party will be held. But if this team is determined to return to the playoffs and perhaps even survive the first round, it has to happen.

Excuse me while I start blowing up a few balloons.