WR Karl Williams tied a Buccaneer record with 116 punt return yards on Sunday, much of it on his fourth career touchdown return
He was the talk of game week, the man who could turn the game around with one special teams play if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' once again found themselves in a tight contest. He was the subject of laser-like focus by the opposing club's special teams during practice, a weapon to be feared in the return game.
He was Desmond Howard of the Detroit Lions.
He was not the talk of the postgame.
That honor fell to the Bucs unassuming and underrated return man, sixth-year veteran receiver Karl Williams. As he has done repeatedly throughout his increasingly significant Buccaneer career, Williams created a huge moment on special teams, perhaps the biggest single play in Tampa Bay's narrow, 20-17 win.
Williams even heightened the drama of his own moment with a rare miscue. Midway through the third quarter, he tried to make a difficult catch in traffic of a John Jett punting, running forward and barely avoiding a Detroit tackler. The ball slipped through his hands and was recovered by the Lions, leading to Detroit's first score of the game.
"That was disappointing on the fumble," said Dungy, who likes having Williams back there precisely because he is so dependable. "I think he was going to fair catch it, then was looking around and trying to stay out of the traffic and just misplayed the ball.
"They just have to give you an opportunity to make the catch. I don't know how close the guy got to him, but he was definitely in his field of vision."
Suddenly, a game mostly dominated by the Bucs looked like a nail-biter, as the Lions were down just 10-7. Though the game would indeed come down to the wire, Williams atoned for his own mistake almost immediately.
On the Lions' very next punt, Williams eschewed the fair catch and hauled in a high Jett punt at the Bucs' 16, with two Lion cover men running at him unfettered. Williams did what every successful punt return man must do on occasion, making the first man – in this case, two men – miss. The next cut, a quick one inside to avoid another tackler, was the special move of the return, the type that can turn a routine 10-yard runback into something big.
From there, Williams headed to the sideline, outrunning Jett and another tackler with an angle. One more Lion had a shot at him, but RB Rabih Abdullah and S David Gibson provided blocks that Williams read correctly, cutting first inside then back out to gain an open shot to the end zone.
"The touchdown was a great run," said Dungy. "He's had some big ones for us over the last five years, but that one was a pretty one. We got some good blocking, but he did a lot of it himself."
There was a time when such a run was a great rarity for the Buccaneers. Until 1994, no player in team history had ever returned a punt for a touchdown. Vernon Turner broke the ice that year, on an 80-yarder against Detroit, but nobody else matched the feat until Williams joined the team in 1996.
That season, the unknown rookie out of Texas A&M didn't even assume the return job until late in November. That didn't stop him from earning Special Teams Player of the Month honors in December, during which he scored on an electrifying 88-yard return against Chicago on December 22, 1996. The week before, he had come close with a 72-yard return at Minnesota.
That opened the flood gates. Tampa Bay now has seven punt return touchdowns, four of them, amazingly, by Williams. The Bucs have won all four games in which 'The Truth' has found the end zone on special teams, including the season finale against Chicago in 1997 and the victory over Buffalo last November.
Even with that track record, the Bucs' return jobs were apparently up for grabs when training camp began this year, as they have been virtually every season since Williams came on board. None of the Bucs' young return hopefuls – e.g. Frank Murphy and Dwight Smith – inspired the confidence that Williams does, so the job remained in his steady hands.
It looked like only a matter of time, then, until Williams etched his name in the Bucs' record book as the most prolific punt return man in team annals (obviously, he had already done so in terms of touchdowns). He entered the season just 163 yards behind Danny Reece, but got off to an extremely slow start, in part because there were few opportunities for returns. Buc opponents seemed to constantly be punting from at or near midfield, meaning most punts either went over his head or were so high that the coverage reached him almost as soon as the ball did.
After five games, Williams had just seven punt returns for 14 yards. However, things began to loosen up against Minnesota, when he returned three punts for 51 yards, including a 28-yarder. He had a 21-yard return the next weekend in Green Bay during a 3-32 day, and suddenly Reece was in sight.
Still, at the moment Williams fielded his seventh punt of the day (including one fair catch), he was still 38 yards behind Reece, having recorded 32 yards on his first five returns, with two helpful returns of 14 yards. Reece's mark fell very close to midfield, before Williams was even halfway to the end zone.
"When Karl took it back, that was just amazing," said another special teams hero of the day, kicker Martin Gramatica. "It was great. That just got everybody fired up and ready. That helped a lot. Then the guys covered great. Desmond is a top-of-the-line returner, and he didn't get anywhere."
While stealing the show from Howard, Williams also made a few more dents in the Buc record book. His 116 return yards tied his own single-game mark, set in that aforementioned Chicago game of 1997 (12/21/97). Since he also took one of his returns and threw back across the field to S Dexter Jackson on a trick play, resulting in Jackson's 18-yard gain, the Bucs as a team broke their mark of 116 punt return yards in that Chicago game.
The Bucs play Detroit again in a month, in a rematch in Tampa on December 9. Though the 0-8 Lions won't be in the playoff hunt, the game could be critical to the Bucs' postseason hopes. Perhaps, in the days leading up to the game, there will once again be an inordinate amount of attention paid to the dangerous return man waiting to change the game. This time, perhaps, that focus will fall on Karl Williams.