RB Cadillac Williams had 434 yards in the season's first three games and 462 in the last five
Cadillac Williams shot out of the gate fast and thundered down the backstretch, and that was enough to win him the race.
The race in this case was for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, which was awarded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-year running back by the Associated Press on Wednesday. Williams was honored for his 1,178-yard season, the best rookie rushing campaign in Buccaneer history and the signature effort among the league's offensive newcomers this year. He received 47 of the 50 votes cast by a nationwide panel.
The fifth pick in the 2005 draft, Williams appeared to be running away from the competition when he gained an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in his first three league games. He was the first player in league history to start his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games, a fact that prompted the Pro Football Hall of Fame to come calling for his cleats and a few other souvenirs.
However, a foot injury suffered in the midst of that hot streak eventually sidelined Williams midway through Game Four, and made him a non-factor through most of October and November. Over a six-game midseason stretch, including two for which he was inactive, Williams tacked just 82 yards onto his season total.
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, their rookie sensation announced his return in a thrilling, 30-27 win at Atlanta on November 20, rushing for 116 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. From that game through the season finale, Williams had just one afternoon – the Bucs' 28-0 loss at New England in Week 15 – in which he failed to gain at least 80 rushing yards.
When the Buccaneers played Atlanta again in Week 16, with a shot at the NFC South title on the line, Williams came up big again, rushing 31 times for 150 yards and a score, including 45 yards in overtime as he continued his rookie-season pattern of gaining strength late in the game. During that performance, Williams broke the 1,000-yard mark and surpassed Errict Rhett's 1994 Buccaneer rookie record of 1,011 yards.
Despite the midseason lull caused by his foot injury, Williams finished as the sixth-leading rusher in the NFC, 13th in the NFL. He was the leading rookie rusher by a wide margin, gaining 271 more yards than his former Auburn teammate Ronnie Brown. Williams and Brown were two-thirds of a running back trio that went within the first five picks of April's draft, with Brown going second to Miami and Texas' Cedric Benson going fourth to the Chicago Bears. Benson finished the season with 272 rushing yards.
The AP released its choice early in the morning on Wednesday, while Williams was getting some rest for his duel with Clinton Portis this Saturday in the playoff opener. Confronted on Tuesday with the possibility that he might win the award, Williams chose to deflect much of the praise to the men who opened the holes for him this season.
"I think it would mean a lot for me and for the offensive linemen," he said. "They played a big role in what I did this year. Those guys have done a great job. If I was fortunate enough to win that award it would mean a lot."
Williams emerged at the top of what appeared to be a crowded field of candidates for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award after April's draft. The first five men selected were all offensive players (quarterback Alex Smith went to San Francisco at number one and wide receiver Braylon Edwards went third to Cleveland), and seven of the first 10. Six receivers went in the first round – Edwards, Troy Williamson (Minnesota), Mike Williams (Detroit), Matt Jones (Jacksonville), Mark Clayton (Jacksonville) and Roddy White (Atlanta) – but none changed their team's fortunes as thoroughly as Cadillac did with the Buccaneers. Williams posted six 100-yard rushing games, a Buccaneer record, and Tampa Bay won all six.
In fact, one of the toughest competitors for Williams might have been his own teammate, tight end Alex Smith, drafted out of Stanford in the third round. Smith led all rookie tight ends with 41 catches, the most by a Buccaneer in 10 years, and was third among all rookies in that category. Clayton paced the class with 44 catches and Philadelphia receiver Reggie Brown was next at 43.
In the end, though, the competition from within and without was left behind by Williams' strong finish. In December and January, as the Bucs won four of five games to take the division title away from Carolina, Williams rushed for 462 yards and three touchdowns.
His eventual total was the fifth-best rushing mark in Tampa Bay annals and it easily surpassed the 978 yards that won former Buc back Warrick Dunn the same award in 1997. Dunn and Williams are the only two players in franchise history to win the AP's Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.