FRISCO, Texas - In an ideal world -- a world the Cowboys clearly aren't living in this year --we might be talking about how far Connor Williams has progressed while playing alongside four of the best veterans you could ask to have your back. Last season Williams started 11 games while learning from Pro Bowl caliber players like Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, La'el Collins and Joe Looney.
When things started to go wrong last Monday against the Cardinals, Williams looked around and none of them were on the offensive line with him.
"Obviously we'd love to have those guys with us," Williams said on Thursday. "But at the end of the day it's about doing your job and your assignment and doing the most you can to help your team, and we have the right guys that I feel like we can do our job."
There's certainly some young talent left on the offensive line, but perhaps the biggest shock is that those 11 games Williams started are just about the only game experience the O-Line is putting out on the field. Whereas coming into the season the expectations for Williams might have been to simply keep developing into a starting-caliber player, now he's going to have to be something of a leader in the group. He'll have to look back to what those All-Pro players showed him when he was coming up as a Dallas Cowboy in this league.
"I think it's about just keeping a direction for the O-Line to follow, lead by example," Williams said. "I mean, I was in their shoes two years ago. So I know how it is and looking at the old guys having the confidence to fight, go out there and do your job, and trust in the man next to you."
Very few things have gone as planned for this Cowboys team since the season has started. The season-ending ankle injury to Dak Prescott is at the top of the list of worst-case scenarios come true. But when the team signed a trusted veteran like Andy Dalton, they likely did so because they believed they had constructed their roster in a way that, in the event that Prescott would miss time, a player like Dalton would have the tools to jump in and compete for victories. They were not expecting that event to coincide with a decimation of the starting offensive line: Smith and Collins expected to miss the rest of the season on IR, Looney currently on IR, and Martin going through concussion protocol this week. (Frederick, of course retired in March.)
Dalton has no choice but to believe in the potential of the men who will currently be blocking for him this Sunday against Washington's dangerous pass rushers.
"Obviously with some of these guys being younger, they haven't played in a ton of games, but I think it comes down to preparation," Dalton said Thursday. "We've got the right type of guys who can step in and fill these roles. That comes from the communication we have throughout the week. The way we prepare gives you confidence going into Sunday."
For the majority of last decade, the offensive line was not only a strength of the Dallas Cowboys, it was a dominating force that had as much to do with their wins as any one part of the team. Nothing lasts forever, but a series of misfortunes have taken that advantage away suddenly and noticeably. "Reliable" is no longer a word that can be automatically applied to the Dallas O-Line, but the new word might have to be resourceful.
Williams can embody that resourcefulness by taking a step from promising player to veteran leader. It starts with attitude, and hopefully, it evolves into results.
"Overnight you can't teach experience and you can't teach reps, but you can teach hard work and effort," Williams said. "I think that's what we're instilling and instilling twice. At the end of the day, that's what we're holding our hat on, and that's what's going to win."