WR Karl Williams is on the verge of an NFL record
When fourth-year WR Karl Williams says he hopes to return this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, he's not just talking about suiting up for the first time in nearly a month. Williams would also like to return punts on Sunday, something he has been extraordinarily successful at in his NFL career.
"I tried it today (returning punts) and coach asked me how it felt," said Williams after practice on Wednesday. "He didn't say if I was going to be back there, but I think I will."
Williams is not even listed on the Buccaneers' injury report this week, indicating that he will be back in the lineup after missing three games with a sprained right foot. He will head into Sunday's game with a total of 74 career punt returns for 1,021 yards and two touchdowns. Both his punt return and yardage totals rank second in team history, but his 13.8-yard career average is not only the best ever by a Buccaneer, it is soon to be an NFL standard.
It takes 75 career punt returns to qualify for the NFL lead in punt return average, a mark currently held by Oakland's Darrien Gordon at 12.9 yards per return (updated through last Sunday's game). Williams will reach that qualifying mark with his next return, and it would be nearly impossible for his average to dip far enough to be beneath Gordon's (assuming Gordon's average remains relatively the same).
For instance, if Williams' is stopped for no gain on his next return, his overall career average would only slip to 13.6, still well ahead of Gordon. Even if Williams were to lose 10 yards on his next return, he would still own an average of 13.5. In fact, for Williams to drop as low as 13.0 yards per return, he would have to lose 46 yards on his next return.
Not likely, Williams tends to head upfield on punt returns, with uncanny results. Though he has relinquished the Bucs' primary punt return duties to the lightning-quick Jacquez Green, Williams is still called upon for spot duty from time to time. This year, he's returned just five punts but gained 67 yards on those runbacks, an average of 13.4 yards per return. That is amazingly consistent with his career average entering 1999.
Williams first turned heads in the return game as a rookie in 1996, when he made the team as an undrafted free agent. With the Bucs' punt and kickoff return games floundering, Williams stepped in at midseason and ran back 13 punts for a 21.1-yard average and 14 kickoffs for a 27.4-yard average. Included was an 88-yard touchdown return of a punt against Chicago on 12/22/96, then the longest punt return in team history and only the second ever for a score. Proving that his half-season worth of work was not a fluke, Williams averaged 13.0 yards on 46 punt returns in 1997, returning another punt for a touchdown in the process. Green arrived in 1998.
Of course, no Buccaneer leads the NFL in any career category. Williams hopes to move to the top of a list that currently is headed by Gordon followed by George McAfee, who averaged 12.78 yards on 112 punts for the Chicago Bears from 1940-41 and 1945-50, and Jack Christiansen, who averaged 12.75 yards on 85 returns for the Detroit Lions from 1951-58.