Cadillac Williams stayed positive during midseason struggles and came on strong to emerge as the league's top rookie
On this issue, at least the fans and the media agree.
Almost exactly a month after the Associated Press named Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams the Offensive Rookie of the Year, NFL fans paid similar tribute with the NFL Rookie of the Year award on Thursday.
Williams' second Rookie of the Year honor was the result of fan balloting on NFL.com, which ran most of the month of January and concluded on Monday. In the process, more than one million votes were cast among the five nominees, the highest percentage going to Williams.
Four of the five nominees were on hand in Detroit for Thursday's announcement, which was part of the festivities of Super Bowl XL week leading up to Sunday's big game. Seattle's Lofa Tatupu, one of the other four finalists, did not attend the press conference as his team is preparing to face Pittsburgh on Sunday. Several other important awards will be bestowed this week, including NFL Man of the Year and, of course, the latest Hall of Fame invitations.
Williams emerged as the top vote-getter from among a strong field that also included San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman, Cincinnati linebacker Odell Thurman and Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Given the position shared by his four competitors, Williams was clearly the top offensive rookie this season. However, he received very strong competition in the voting from Merriman, who had 10 sacks, and more recently Tatupu, a driving force in Seattle's run to the Super Bowl. In the end, the fans favored Williams' offensive contributions to a team that exceeded almost everyone's expectations in 2005.
"Wow," said Williams as he accepted the football-shaped trophy. "First of all, I'd like to thank God, who has given me the ability to do all of this. I'd also like to thank the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the whole staff, from the coaches to the general manager. I'd like to thank my teammates, who also made this possible. I know it's an individual award, but I feel like once you get an individual award it's also a team award, too. Most of all, I'd like to thank the fans who voted. I know without you all, it wouldn't be possible."
The NFL Rookie of the Year award is the culmination of a season-long effort to recognize the league's top newcomers. Each week, fan voting determined a Rookie of the Week from among five choices posted on NFL.com. Williams won the award in each week of September as he galloped toward an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in his first three career games. Thurman (Week 6), Merriman (Week 11) and Ware (Week 16) each won the award once. Williams, Cleveland quarterback Charlie Frye (three times) and Green Bay running back Samkon Gado (twice) were the only players to win more than one weekly award.
Mike Haynes, the league's top defensive rookie in 1976, announced Williams as the winner on Thursday afternoon. "This is the last time we'll call him a rookie," said Haynes. "He stood apart in delivering an outstanding season, which included an unprecedented start by a rookie rusher."
Williams' debut season was indeed worthy of praise. He set a franchise rookie record with 1,178 rushing yards, the fourth-highest single-season mark in Buccaneer annals. Despite missing two games and seeing much of the middle of his season scuttled by a bothersome foot injury, Williams still finished sixth in the NFC in rushing and he tied Mike Alstott for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.
After his historic start – the Pro Football Hall of Fame now has the cleats from his third game on display – and subsequent injury struggles, Williams came on strong during the Bucs' successful stretch drive. After dropping to 5-3, the Buccaneers overtook both the Falcons and the Panthers to take the NFC South at 11-5, winning six of their last eight games. The three biggest wins in that second-half run were at Carolina and Atlanta, and again versus the Falcons at home. Williams rushed for 116 and 150 yards in the two wins over Atlanta and paced the victory in Charlotte with 112 yards and two touchdowns.
"I got off to a great start, and I guess it caught me by surprise," said Williams. "Then I went through that slump when I had my injury and things weren't going well. At times I was down, but I had a lot of support from my family. Towards the end of the season, things turned around. I got back on track and was able to do some things. Overall, my rookie year was up and down, but I know that playing the game of football it's always going to be like that. I'm looking forward to another one."
In all, the rookie back set a Buccaneer single-season record with six 100-yard rushing efforts, and the Bucs were undefeated in those games. Tampa Bay also won every game in which Williams scored a touchdown and were 9-1 when they rushed for 100 yards as a team.
Williams was the NFL's leading rookie rusher by a wide margin this year, 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. He lapped the offensive competition in the R.O.Y. voting despite the fact that the first five picks in the 2005 draft, and seven of the first 10, were all offensive players.
This is the fourth year the NFL has awarded its Rookie of the Year honor, using fan voting. Last year's winner was Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, following Houston Texans running back Domanick Davis in 2004 and New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey in 2003.