WR Karl Williams remains the team's primary punt returner in his fifth NFL season
Sometime soon, probably this Sunday in Detroit, wide receiver Karl Williams will make his 100th career NFL catch.
Sometime soon, perhaps in the Silverdome this weekend, Williams will take off on his 100th career punt return.
Sometime later, the significance of those events, which may occur on the exact same day, will land on Williams. Not now. Right now, the number 100 is only meaningful to him in terms of his determination. As cliched as it, Williams feels his place in the game was earned by, and remains secured by, 100% effort. Reaching these markers won't mean he has made it in the league and is allowed to relax.
"You never look at it like that. I always look at it as I need to make myself better. I'm constantly trying to do things better than the next guy. That's really how you have to approach everything in this game.
So we'll celebrate the accomplishments for him. They are modest numbers in the NFL, of course. Some receiver, maybe more than one, will have 100 catches just this season. Of the 30 players listed on the league's active punt return leaders list (by return average) entering the 2000 season, 18 had already passed the 100-return mark.
But these milestones are not insignificant. They caused Head Coach Tony Dungy a moment of pause when he was informed of Williams' chance to reach them both this weekend.
"Karl's done a great job for us and is really a steady, dependable guy," said Dungy. "That's something that I wasn't even aware. That is a great stat, if he reaches it. Not many people are able to do that."
Dungy was referring to players who have battled the types of odds that Williams has. Williams entered the NFL as an undrafted college free agent in 1996, an unknown from diminutive Texas A&M-Kingsville. Buc scout Ruston Webster went to Kingsville that spring to look at offensive lineman Jermane Mayberry, eventually drafted in the first round by Philadelphia. The Bucs came out of that trip with free agents Williams, G Jorge Diaz and, eventually, C Kevin Dogins. Williams' coach with the Javelinas, Ron Harm, helped his cause by recommending him to the Bucs' personnel department.
To be frank, that is not the normal beginning to a five-year NFL career. Yet here is Williams in his fifth season, giving no reason to believe his own career won't last twice that long.
That same year, Tampa Bay drafted Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones in the first round and Mike Alstott in the second round. They had another second-round selection to burn and players to replace at both receiver (Alvin Harper) and returner (Bobby Joe Edmonds), but instead the Bucs traded that pick to San Diego, who took Virginia Tech receiver Brian Still.
The Bucs netted a 1997 first-round pick, which was eventually used on receiver Reidel Anthony, then picked up Williams in the post-draft free agent frenzy in '96. Still caught 82 passes in four seasons with the Chargers before being released last November, and he is currently not on an NFL roster.
Williams, meanwhile, has been steady, which has allowed him to be occasionally spectacular. He has had between 21 and 33 receptions each of his four NFL seasons, has missed just six games in four years and has filled in as a starter 17 times.
In 1996, Williams was an unsung hero, making 15 of his 22 catches on third down. By the end of the year, he was done flying underneath opponents' radar, however, having earned both the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month and NFC Special Teams Player of the Month awards in December. On December 22 of that year, in the season finale, Williams capped his rookie season by returning a punt 88 yards for a touchdown, then the longest punt return in team history and only the second one to find the end zone.
Since then, each August, Williams has been not quite on the bubble and not quite a lock for the roster, at least in his own mind. When he was asked this past July to offer mental tips to the current crop of undrafted rookies, Williams revealed that he felt closer to them than to his established teammates, in terms of emotions on cut day.
"It's always in the back of your mind," said Williams at the time. "I'm going into my fifth year, but each camp I go in just as I did my rookie year because anything can happen. Just because I've been there and done that, doesn't mean I've forgotten about it. Each year I come in as if I'm rookie trying to make the squad again, because that's really what it is."
But he has made it each year, and he has continued to make big plays. In September of 1997, the Bucs were in danger of falling to an Arizona team that would finish the season 4-12, but Williams caught a critical fourth-down crossing pass late in the fourth quarter, ran away from CB Aeneas Williams and continued down the sideline for a 31-yard, game-winning touchdown.
Later that year, Williams became the first and only Buccaneer with two punt return touchdowns, stunning Chicago again with an unforgettable and circuitous 61-yard runback. He finished the season with career highs in starts (seven), receptions (33), receiving yards (486) and receiving touchdowns (four).
Still, the Buccaneers continued adding receivers, most of whom were slotted above Williams on the depth chart. Anthony in the 1997 draft. His former Florida Gator teammate, Jacquez Green, in the '98 draft. Free agent Bert Emanuel that same year. Keyshawn Johnson and Andre Hastings this season. And still, Williams makes the team, is active each week and is a contributor, in some way or another, seemingly every game.
"With the addition of Keyshawn, everybody's time is more limited and everybody's role has changed," said Williams. "You just have to accept your role and find ways to make yourself better week by week. It's a long season and you have to be ready and prepared at all times and just go from there."
Take last Sunday's contest. There were, of course, plenty of stars and dozens of notable plays in the Bucs' 41-0 razing of the Bears, enough to render Williams' one catch forgettable. And yet, it was one of the most acrobatic moments of the game, a 27-yard reception on the left sideline on which he outleapt CB Thomas Smith and kept his feet in bounds despite Smith's pass interference. It was also the key play in the team's 90-yard touchdown drive.
"When it's your turn, you have to go in there and make something happen," said Williams. "Last week, the first play I got, I had to make a big catch. You just have to be ready at any time."
It was a long march, one in which Williams quietly came in and made a big play just when it was needed. Come to think of it, that just happens to be a perfect description of Williams' career.