Rookie wide receivers as polished and productive as Mike Williams don't come along often.
Waiver-wire finds like LeGarrette Blount who blast their way towards a 1,000-rushing-yard rookie campaign aren't particularly common, either.
Somehow, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found both of those assets at the same time…and that is actually extraordinarily rare.
Last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, Williams caught six passes for 96 yards and his eighth touchdown of the season. Meanwhile, Blount blasted for 110 yards and his sixth score of the year on 15 carries.
As it turned out, that wasn't enough to produce a victory over the Lions, but it did move Blount into the lead among all NFL rookies in rushing yards. Williams merely padded the rookie receiving yardage lead he had already claimed. And that's how the young Buccaneer duo moved into position to make history.
The last time one team had two different players who led all league rookies in rushing yards and receiving yards was 1968, when Paul Robinson and Bob Trumpy pulled off the feat for the Cincinnati Bengals. Thus, it has not happened even once since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, which is often used as a demarcation point for achievements such as these.
Couple Williams and Blount with rapidly-emerging second-year quarterback Josh Freeman, and it's hard not to feel good about the future of the Buccaneers' offense.
"I feel like if we go out and execute our game plan the way we do it during the week, there's no reason we can't put up points against anybody," said Blount. "We have the athletes and the players to do it."
In fact, the most difficult part might be figuring out which of Tampa Bay's breakout youngsters is the better candidate for the NFL's Rookie of the Year Award. Williams and Blount have already combined for nine Rookie of the Week nominations, with Williams holding a 5-4 edge. Ask the receiver who Tampa Bay's top rookie is this year, however, and he'll point to Blount. Blount pointed right back on Wednesday.
"It's Mike Williams, definitely Mike Williams," said the bruising runner. "He's on pace for a 1,000-yard receiving season as a rookie. He's doing awesome. I like him to go to the Pro Bowl."
Cincy's Robinson rushed 238 times for 1,023 yards and eight touchdowns in 1968. Trumpy, primarily a tight end, caught 37 passes for 639 yards and three scores. Both remained core players on the Bengals' offense into the '70s, with Trumpy lasting longer, until 1977.
With two games remaining in 2010, Blount has 777 yards and those six TDs on 164 carries, averaging 4.7 yards per run. Williams has 58 receptions for 880 yards and his eight scores, averaging 15.2 yards per catch. The closest rookie competitor for Blount is New Orleans' Christopher Ivory, who has 683 yards and five touchdowns on 130 carries, but did not play in last weekend's game. The next leading receiver behind Williams is Cincinnati's Jordan Shipley, with 583.
Freeman would like to see his two young teammates hit their four-digit milestones, but that won't factor into any of the play-calling or his own decision-making on Sunday against Seattle.
"A thousand yards for two rookies would be a good way to start your career," he said. "But both of those guys are team guys. If they don't get the mark or it's real close, they're not going to jeopardize playing the game. They wouldn't want us to. But I think it would be awesome if both of them got those goals and got a few more touchdowns. They're both playing extremely well for us – two rookies, that's awesome."
Obviously, a few more scores each for Williams and Blount would go a long way toward helping the Buccaneers win their last two games and keep their playoff hopes alive. They would also help the two rookies maintain their lead in those categories, as well. After Williams' eight receiving scores, the next best rookie is injured Cowboy receiver Dez Bryant, with six. Behind Blount's six rushing TDs is Ivory with five.
Though Williams seems like a lock to keep his receiving yardage lead, Blount does have some real competition remaining in Ivory. But even if Williams had another rookie on his tail, he wouldn't worry too much about how the final statistical standings played out.
"I'll keep what I have now and make the playoffs instead of getting a thousand and not making the playoffs," he said. "It's really not that important to me."
Well said. It is clearly important to the Buccaneers' future, however, to have the most impactful rookie RB-WR tandem in more than 40 years.
Playoffs Starting Early
NFL coaches generally interpret the "must-win" label more literally than fans or pundits do. They chafe at putting that label on early or mid-season games, arguing that it doesn't truly apply until a team reaches the point in which a failure to win the next contest will eliminate it from Super Bowl contention.
The 2010 Buccaneers have reached that point, and Raheem Morris told his team so on Wednesday morning.
"The message to the team today was: For us the playoffs start today," said the Buccaneers' second-year head coach. "The playoffs start today with our preparations. For us right now, losing control like we did [with the loss to Detroit], it starts today. We start our first game of elimination this week."
Indeed, while there are attractive scenarios remaining that put the Buccaneers into the six-team NFC playoff field, they all began with Tampa Bay winning this Sunday against Seattle. The Bucs will play at New Orleans in Week 17 regardless of what happens at Raymond James Stadium this weekend, but they need to win to play on. Their win-or-go-home path to the Super Bowl is at least five weeks long and is already underway.
"It's a playoff game for us," said wide receiver Arrelious Benn. "We're going to treat it like that. We're going to go out there with that tempo and try to win all three phases of the game."
Tackle Donald Penn agreed, and furthermore he believes the Bucs aren't the only team with that mentality.
"I think you've got to [treat it that way], because if we lose one more I think we're out," he said. "Seattle's treating it the same way. The Saints are treating it the same way. Even Atlanta. They're at the top because they want to make sure they get the first-round bye clinched. All these teams in the hunt, you've got to treat it like that."
The Buccaneers are not in control of their own playoff destiny; they will need a couple other results to go in their favor over the next two weeks. That doesn't enter into their mental approach to Sunday's game, however.
"It's a must-win," said Williams. "We can't suit up for the other teams and play for them, so we've got to go out there and control what we can control. It's a must-win situation for us and we've got to win."
The Buccaneers enjoyed a light, two-person injury report last week, but that rarely lasts long in the NFL. As they began their preparations for the Seahawks on Wednesday, the Bucs had five players who were either limited in practice or rested completely.
The two Tampa Bay players who did not participate on Wednesday were wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (hamstring) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee). Stroughter's injury is new but the team has commonly given Winslow the first day of practice off this season as ongoing maintenance of his legs.
Starting right tackle James Lee, who left last Sunday's game against Detroit in the second half with an ankle injury, was able to participate on Wednesday, though in a limited fashion. Also limited were cornerback Myron Lewis (hip) and linebacker Dekoda Watson (ankle).