Only one of Cadillac Williams' five 100-yard rushing games has come at home...so far
Rookie running back Carnell Williams has done his best work on the road this season…what else would you expect from a Cadillac?
Automobile puns aside, Williams' road/home splits have been curious this fall. Four of his team record-tying five 100-yard rushing games have come on the road, as have six of his eight games with at least 80 yards. Of Williams' 947 rushing yards this season, 673, or 71%, have occurred in road games. Even with only 20 yards at San Francisco and 23 at New England, Cadillac rolled for more than 96 yards per outing in the seven road games in which he played.
That's an impressive accomplishment for a rookie making his first tour around the NFL, and not at all insignificant in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' ability to post a road mark of 5-3. That winning record away from home has put the Bucs on the verge of the playoffs, but now they need Williams to dazzle the home crowd in order to grab that postseason opportunity.
The Bucs have two home games left to finish the slate, versus division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans. Win both and Tampa Bay is definitely in the playoffs, and perhaps division champs. Even one win in those two gives the Bucs a very good shot at playing past January 1. But it's hard to envision the team having the success it needs over the next nine days without Williams bringing some of his road success to Raymond James Stadium.
"Basically, if you look at some of the top teams in this league, everybody can run the football," said the rookie sensation out of Auburn. "To win ballgames, to win championships, you're going to have to run the football and play good defense. Of course, you're going to have to pass the ball, but it all comes down to running the football, and that's what we're going to have to establish early in the game [Saturday], being physical and getting the run."
The Bucs tried that against New England a week ago, handing it to Williams on seven of their first eight first downs. The Patriots were up to the challenge and the Bucs' offense never got untracked on a cold and windy Foxborough afternoon. But, more often than not, when the Bucs have wanted to put the offense on Williams' shoulders, they've been able to get him going.
That was true just six days before the New England game when the compactly-built rookie repeatedly bulled through Carolina's fine run defense to rack up 112 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-10 Buccaneer victory. This was mid-December, and Williams was breaking two and three tackles per run, looking like the strongest player on the field. No rookie wall in sight. Even against New England, Williams felt as good as ever; he just couldn't find any holes against that surging Patriot defense. Nothing from that disappointing game should lead to any worry about Williams' prospects over the final two weeks of the season.
"I didn't feel like I was tentative in the hole," said Williams of the Patriots game. "Those guys play great up front for us. New England did some things that kind of got us out of our game plan but, no, I didn't feel like I was tentative or anything like that."
The Bucs were thrilled when the Auburn star dropped to them at the fifth pick in the draft last April, then ecstatic when he proved to be the type of no-nonsense football junkie for which the team's scouts had pegged him. The Bucs knew they had something special on their hands by training camp, and they basically hid him during the preseason before unleashing their new weapon in the games that counted.
Williams burst out of the gate in historic fashion. He became the first player in league history to start his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games, and his 434 yards over that span were the most ever in a player's first three outings. Of course, the Bucs won all three of those games.
A foot injury and the resulting recovery time took a big chunk of productivity out of the middle of his season, but Williams could still finish as the top rookie runner in franchise history. With two games to play, he is 64 yards behind Errict Rhett's 1994 rookie record of 1,011.
As loud as his debut was – Williams' cleats were actually summoned by the Pro Football Hall of Fame after Game Three – his demeanor has been unfailingly reserved and quiet. Head Coach Jon Gruden has lamented that getting information out of his rookie back is like squeezing blood from a stone, and members of the media know that Williams stops to consider each question before answering. That's a wise approach for any player, and Williams definitely seems to have wisdom beyond his years. He certainly understands that the Bucs have to put their shutout loss in Foxborough behind them in a hurry.
"It's something you learn all season," he said. "On this level here, I've already learned that when you win a big game you've got to fly home or go home and then forget about it. If you lose a game, no matter what the outcome was or how bad it was, you've got to forget about it. It's week to week, man. You've got to be prepared to play. Therefore, that's over with. True, we took a nice whooping, but it's over with and we've got [Atlanta] to look forward to."
And, if the Bucs can win their final two games and get just a bit of help from one of Carolina's last two opponents, they can still achieve their goals despite the loss to New England. It's an easier concept in the NFL, getting over a loss, because there is usually an opportunity to regain whatever you have lost. In college, one defeat often costs a team a chance at the championship.
Or, even worse, a team can win all of its games and still not take the title. That's what happened to Williams' powerful Auburn team in 2004, when they went undefeated but watched two other teams – USC and Oklahoma – play for the national title.
"I like this system a lot better," said Williams with a laugh. "If you lose a couple games here, you still have a chance to win it all if you do well in the playoffs. But in college you could win them all and not play for it, so I like this system better. I know how that feels. It's not a good feeling."
Those days are past. The Bucs know, as do about eight or nine other teams, that they will be Super Bowl champions if they can win every game they have left. It's even a legitimate possibility for most of those teams. Tampa Bay certainly won't be satisfied with anything less.
And to get there, they're going to need Cadillac to take them home.