RB Cadillac Williams looks more confident on the field, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden, after his busy stint at the end of the Detroit game
Before he played in his first NFL game in over a year this past weekend in Detroit, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams consulted with some friends who had returned to the field after recovering from serious knee injuries. He was told to expect a serious case of butterflies in his stomach.
But Williams had just spent the better part of 14 months in grueling, often painful rehab. He had spent about four weeks on the practice field with the Buccaneers, testing out his reconstructed knee. He was excited and thrilled to be back on the field. Nerves? Come on. Not for Caddy, right?
"Dead nervous," admitted Williams on Wednesday, three days after he logged 16 hard-nosed carries in the win over the Lions. "I was nervous. The night before the game, I didn't sleep at all. It kind of felt like we were playing in the Super Bowl or something. I just couldn't sleep, I was real nervous, but overall, it went real well."
Indeed it did. Williams' 16 carries produced only 27 yards, but almost all of them were in the four-minute drill at the end of the game, when the running back is bashing away at a nine-man front that knows he's coming. A couple backfield jailbreaks killed his average on those 16 carries, but there were several runs that featured hard cuts and even harder hits.
Everything felt right.
"I talked to guys and they said the first game coming back from and injury is always a big game, the one you're going to real nervous about because you did the rehab, you have been practicing, but it was still you're first live contact," said Williams. "It went well though."
Those 27 unassuming yards raised hopes at Buccaneer headquarters that Williams could be a factor down the stretch. That would be an enormously good development for the Buccaneers, because they lost running back Earnest Graham for the season to an ankle injury in Week 11. Warrick Dunn has picked up the slack very well – 245 combined rushing and receiving yards in the last two games – but the Bucs would still like to pair him with another workhorse back. Williams can definitely be that man if he's close to what he was before the injury.
He's closer now, having tested out the knee and finding it sound. Head Coach Jon Gruden said the difference was obvious in practice, even.
"I think that was really good for him," said Gruden of Williams' extended cameo at the end of the Lions contest. "He had an opportunity to get successive plays and really play the game again. I just witnessed it on the practice field – he looked different, he looked better."
There were several pleasing health-related sights on the Bucs' practice field on Wednesday. In fact, all 53 players on the roster participated in the workout in at least a limited fashion. Any enthusiasm must be tempered by the fact that the team chose to slow its Wednesday workout down to a no-helmet walk-through, as has become its late-season modus operandi, but that still indicates that the team is better off this week than it was seven days ago.
That would be especially true if safety Jermaine Phillips and tight end Alex Smith could use Wednesday's practice as a springboard to returning to the field. Phillips has missed three games with a forearm fracture and Smith two with an ankle sprain. Both were on the field Wednesday.
"They were both limited on the field, which is a good sign," said Gruden. "It's better than they were last week. We'll see how they feel tonight and there's a chance."
Quarterback Brian Griese was also limited due to his right elbow injury, while wide receiver Ike Hilliard participated fully despite his ongoing shoulder ailment. That was the extent of Tampa Bay's first injury report of the week.
Rookie running back Clifton Smith has drawn a lot of attention for his work in the return game since his promotion from the practice squad a month ago, and it's obviously well-deserved. However, Smith's gaudy punt and kickoff return averages and his two touchdown runbacks aren't the only thing that has gone right for the Buccaneers between the offensive and defensive snaps.
Tampa Bay's special teams have been outstanding all season, and especially of late. Kicker Matt Bryant is on pace to break most of the franchise's field goal records, including percentage of success, and punter Josh Bidwell has both the gross and net punting standards in his sights. Despite losing such key special-teamers as Maurice Stovall, Byron Storer and Geno Hayes (and, before the season, Torrie Cox), the coverage units remain superb as the season's third quarter draws to a close.
"Bidwell, he'll be in the Pro Bowl, I assume," said Gruden. "Bryant will be in the Pro Bowl without a doubt for what he's done. He makes all his kicks, he's an ice man. Those two guys have been superb. And our return game and coverage units have gotten better and better. That phase of our game is clearly a strength of ours and is going to have to be for us to stay alive here."
The Buccaneers rank among the league's top 10 in the following special teams categories: