Though he did more damage in the return game than on receptions last year, Karl Williams could see his role change again in 2001
Five years ago at this time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't know what they had in Karl Williams.
Perhaps they still don't.
Headed into the Bucs' 1996 training camp, few players on the roster were more obscure than Williams, who had signed as an undrafted rookie out of little Texas A&M-Kingsville. Though very talented as a group, each year's crop of first-year free agents generally have the numbers lined up against them. However, Williams acquired a buzz very early in that '96 camp.
That he made the team that season was enough of a surprise, but who could have imagined at the time what would follow over the next five seasons? At various times, Williams has been the NFL's all-time punt return leader, the Buccaneers' best blocking receiver, the team's primary third-down threat and a three-time NFC Player of the Week award winner.
He's also bungeed strangely between periods of productivity and disuse. He has a 33-catch season on his resume (1997), but also a two-reception year ('00). He returned 46 punts in '97, then just 10 the next year. Each July, it's nearly impossible to predict what the coming season will hold for 'The Truth', as he is affectionately known in Tampa.
So how does Williams feel about this amorphous role of his? You might be surprised.
"I think my whole career has been kind of a fairy tale story," he said with utter sincerity on a recent July morning. "I was thinking about it the other day. My friend asked me, 'If your career was over with tomorrow, what would be the thing you would remember?'
"First of all, I would thank God for the ability that I was given. But I would also remember that I was brought in in '96 as a 'camp player.' All the odds were against me, but I put that behind me, worked as hard as I could and followed the vets. The rest is pretty much history."
For awhile, that was history with a capital H, as Williams moved to the top of the NFL's all-time punt-return average list for a period in 1999. He's not the top man on that list at this point, but Williams' 11.6-yard return average is still the best in Buccaneer history among players with at least 75 returns, which is the minimum requirement used by the league.
Williams also owns three of the six punt return touchdowns in Tampa Bay annals, with one as recent as last Thanksgiving weekend against the Buffalo Bills. That 73-yard score in the second half turned a tight game into a 31-17 Buccaneer victory, which in turn kicked off a stretch-run string of four consecutive victories.
It did not, however, guarantee Williams a return to the punt return role in 2001. On returns, he is more substance than style, and players with Jacquez Green-like speed or Warrick Dunn-type elusiveness will always be tempting to the coaching staff in the return game. Williams counters with productiveness and purpose.
"The first thing a good returner has to have is good judgment," he said. "You have to play smart and know the rules, especially on punt returns. The coaches need to have confidence that you will make the right decisions, and I think the coaches are pretty confident in me. Another thing – once you catch the ball, you have to set up your blocks. You don't have to have lightning speed. You have to be a strong runner, but the main thing is setting up your blocks.
"Basically, I'm just trying to win more time on the field, regardless of where it's at. I might even try to talk (Special Teams) Coach (Joe) Marciano into letting me go down and cover a few kicks."
That doesn't seem out of the question, considering the toughness the 5-10, 177-pound wideout has always displayed. The Bucs acquired one of the league's best blocking receivers last spring when they traded for Keyshawn Johnson, but for most of his career Williams was considered the Bucs' best player in that role. That explains his extensive playing time in 1998, in a season in which he caught just 21 passes. The Buccaneers ran for 2,148 yards that season, the second best total in team history and the league's fourth-highest mark in 1999. Many times, Tampa Bay lined up with two tight ends and just one receiver…that receiver was generally Williams, who knew the ball wasn't going to be coming his way.
"I think blocking will always be my strong point because I did so much of it in college," he said. "I guess it's all technique, because I'm not the biggest guy. But I get in there and bang with the big guys and do what I can to try to free up the running back. I think that's all the coaches ask for: just go in and give it al you got and walk off with everything left on the field."
Blocking, special teams…let's see, what else is there? Ah, yes, pass-catching. Receivers are asked to do this from time to time. There's always a different period of Williams' career to focus on for each aspect of his job. For this one, let's turn to 1997.
That was his top receptions season, of course, but it was also the year he ranked among the league's leaders with 16 third-down grabs. His sure hands and good routes inspired confidence in QB Trent Dilfer in key moments, such as the fourth-down, fourth-quarter play against Arizona in September that turned into the game-winning touchdown.
He hasn't had as many passes thrown his way in the last few seasons, but he's ready. That's the key, in his estimation.
"I just go in every day trying to improve, trying to get things right that I messed up the previous day," he said. "I just try to get better, day to day, and that's pretty much all the coaches ask for. We have a new offense coming in, so I've been buried in my playbook, just like the rookies.
"I'm definitely the type of person who feels, if it's not broke, don't fix it. That's definitely what I want the coaches to see. I want them to have enough confidence that, if a guy goes down, I'm ready to step in. Being a backup player, you never know what you're role might be from week to week, so I just try to make myself prepared for whatever it might be. Whether it's going in to be the blocker in the fourth quarter to seal the game or being the guy to go in and make the clutch catch on third down…you just have to be prepared."
So, here we are on the eve of Williams' sixth Tampa Bay training camp. If the first five years have taught him anything, it's that there's no telling how he'll be used this fall. He does have his own thought of what the perfect role would be.
"Hopefully, a combination of everything," he said. "I definitely want to get the return game going again, and I also want to be more productive in the offense. I think I had a pretty good run of mini-camps (this offseason) and my body feels great. I'm rested up and ready to go at it in training camp."
Now he has been there before.