RB Cadillac Williams could end up filling in for Earnest Graham the same way Graham filled the void when Williams was hurt in 2007
Cadillac Williams is ready for the next chapter in his NFL career, but he's hoping for a more compassionate author.
"I just hate that the situation had to be written like this, with EG going down like this," said Williams. "That's football, but I'm going to make the best out of the opportunity."
EG is Earnest Graham, the man who had been the main character in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rushing attack. Having worked for two weeks to overcome a knee injury suffered against Kansas City in Week Nine, Graham took one handoff against Minnesota on Sunday and gained three yards at the expense, apparently, of the rest of his season. A tackler fell awkwardly across Graham's left leg at the end of the play, resulting in an ankle injury for the hard-as-nails runner. Graham could be headed to injured reserve.
Given how much Graham has meant to the Buccaneers for the last 14 months – not coincidentally, the same time period Williams has been rehabbing his own knee injury – this mishap would have been very bad news no matter which week it happened. In this case, however, the timing is particularly peculiar. Just as Williams is nearing his return to the playing field, Graham goes down, leaving a void reverse of the one from last fall? It's hard not to assume the rest of the equation will be reversed, too, with Williams now taking the baton from Graham.
The thing is, no one is yet sure how much Williams will be able to contribute right away. Would the Bucs feel comfortable giving him 15 or 20 carries a game right away, and would that work? Even Williams isn't sure.
"I wouldn't be complaining, but I don't know," he said. "I'm coming off a knee injury, but it's something I feel good about doing. I'm very excited and I'm looking forward to it. I'm ready. I've put in a lot of work. I feel confident. I'm mentally ready, physically ready."
Of course, the rest of the Bucs' backfield has changed significantly since the main job went from Williams to Graham. After Williams was hurt in Week Four of the 2007 season, the Bucs actually turned first to Michael Pittman but Pittman suffered his own injury the following weekend and missed most of the next eight weeks. Pittman then departed as a free agent in the offseason and signed with the Denver Broncos.
Michael Bennett was acquired in a trade after Pittman's injury but saw action only sparingly before being released last week. Warrick Dunn re-signed with the Buccaneers in the offseason and became a fantastic complement to Graham during the first half of the season; Dunn seems likely to step into Graham's starting role. Rookie free agent Clifton Smith joined the picture three weeks ago and has proved to be a legitimate weapon. Fullback B.J. Askew just recently returned from a hamstring injury and has a tailback background. Former Packers tailback and Northwestern star Noah Herron was signed on Tuesday to add depth to the backfield.
But if the Buccaneers could get back something akin to the Cadillac Williams they had before last September's injury, that might keep the running game going for the season's final six weeks. And Williams knows how important that is.
"Ever since I've been here, Coach Gruden has always discussed that, in November and December, the teams that can run the ball are the teams that are usually successful," he said. "We've got the stretch run coming and I'm really looking forward to it."
The Buccaneers chose to leave Williams on the game-day inactive list against Minnesota just six days after he was activated from the PUP list. Now, however, he would appear to be just days away from his first live action in over a year…a year spent, often in isolation from his teammates, toiling away at reconstructing his knee. He began to see the light at the end of the tunnel last February, when he started running the steps at Raymond James Stadium, but still had months of grueling work ahead.
That work reached a new level last Monday when the Buccaneers put on pads for a "bonus" practice and gave Williams a round of hits to simulate the real thing. Next up: the real thing.
A little more than a week removed from that practice, Williams thinks he's ready. He was sore afterwards but he has since felt his body adjust. The 50-60 reps he took with the scout team on Wednesday and Thursday helped him get back into the flow, too.
"I got to get reps and get my wind back," said Williams. "The soreness I had last week has kind of eased off so this week I can get prepared mentally to go out and play on Sunday.
"We were in the training room and I was kind of joking that I hoped my first carry would be a big collision, where I could get up and say, 'Okay, I'm fine,'" said Williams.