RB Cadillac Williams has recently shown his early-season form in practice
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist it's going to happen any day now. He'll be back. As quickly as he slipped away, he's going to be right in the middle of everything again, soon.
Cadillac Williams, the rookie sensation of September who had an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in his first three games and has 82 since, is the man in question. He never actually left, but the 143 rushing yards per game he was providing did. The Bucs have since adjusted offensively – wide receiver Joey Galloway has become more of the focal point – but there's no question that Williams' September production would be heartily welcomed back.
There's also little doubt inside Tampa Bay's locker room that it will be back. Basically, the Bucs are taking a watched-pot-won't-boil approach and refusing to fret daily over Williams' complete return.
"It will come," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It will be alright. He'll be just fine. He's the least of my concerns. He had a good practice today and I'm not going to say anything else other than he's a great football player. He'll prove it. He'll prove it once again. Hopefully it's Sunday."
Williams was so good over the first three weeks of the season that the Pro Football Hall of Fame came and took his cleats. He was the Bucs' offense during their 3-0 start; since, he has been a fairly insignificant factor, due mostly to a sprained left foot that took weeks to heal.
Both player and team claim the foot is no longer a factor, but Williams' last four games played have produced nearly identical numbers: 11 carries for 13 yards against Detroit; 13 for 20 at San Francisco, 11 for 29 versus Carolina and 10 for 20 against Washington. He also sat out two games during that span to give his foot time to heal.
"It's tough right now," Williams conceded. "Things aren't going like I thought they would. It's a little bump in the road but I'm going to come up out of it."
It's been a little frustrating, waiting for that player to return, that back with the killer combination of power and speed, the second-effort runner who had eight carries of more than 10 yards in his first three games. The Bucs were second in the league in rushing to Pittsburgh after three games; now the Steelers are still in the top five and the Bucs have slipped to 18th. They've had 43, 44 and 61 rushing yards, respectively, in their last three games.
On the other hand, it's exciting to think that at some point, perhaps sooner than later, the Bucs are going to have that weapon in their backfield again. It will be like sneaking a big move through after the trading deadline.
"Slowly but surely he's going to get back," said quarterback Chris Simms, who has emerged over the last few weeks even without a reliable running game. "I don't think anyone's worrying or anything like that. We realize it will happen again. He's healthy, he's feeling strong."
There have been signs. Two weeks ago, Gruden saw a different Cadillac on the practice field...or rather, the same one he remembered from September. The rookie seemed to be cutting more sharply, finally putting his injured foot behind him. Williams hasn't appeared on the injury report in two weeks.
And hidden in Williams' unassuming numbers from last Sunday's game were a few nice runs, including two good gains on the second-quarter touchdown drive that put the Bucs up, 21-10. He hasn't gotten to the second level of the defense very often – something he did over and over again in September – but perhaps that's the next thing that will come.
"He played well," said Gruden of Williams' effort against Washington. "I was pleased with what he did. He had three really nice runs where he got yardage in very tough situations. Hopefully this is the week he finds his true stride."
Maybe it will take just one good run, one burst into the open field to get Williams back on stride.
"Just a 10-yard run - that would get me back, get my motor going," he said. "If I can just get a groove going I feel like I'll be okay. I feel like I [still] have that burst. It's just a matter of me getting back into that groove, just getting comfortable again out there."
Galloway has gotten into his own groove while Williams has been limited. He's caught a touchdown pass in six of the last seven games and is among the league leaders in catches, touchdown catches and receiving yards. Simms has looked more like a dynamic passer each game since he assumed the starting job a month ago. Fullback Mike Alstott has reassumed a larger role in the offense and was a short-yardage bull against Washington. Michael Pittman has provided sometimes steady, sometimes spectacular production. With Michael Clayton out last weekend, the Bucs found a new downfield threat in Edell Shepherd.
A healthy and productive Williams could complete that picture. Should complete that picture. Will complete that picture, the Bucs are sure. He says he is healthy, and the team's confidence in him says he'll be productive again soon.
"It's football; I'm not going to use my foot as an excuse," said Williams. "I'm playing poorly right now and I'm not going to use that as an excuse. I'm just in a slump right now and I'm looking at being a whole lot better this week."