RB Cadillac Williams could soon play for the first time in 14 months
Will Cadillac Williams soon be returning from his long layoff? Can Warrick Dunn shake off his sore back? Is B.J. Askew's hamstring finally healed? Is Earnest Graham alright? Every question just might have the same answer
For those who celebrate Christmas, keep this in mind: The time left to work on your list is growing short. In fact, Jon Gruden would have you believe that you're down to just two more shopping days.
"It's almost like Christmas is here," effused the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach on Monday. "Christmas is Wednesday, I hope."
The holidays will have arrived early for Gruden and his Buccaneer offense if Wednesday brings a healthy and activated Cadillac Williams as a present for the team's roster. The Buccaneers have to decide by that day if they indeed want to move Williams from the PUP list to the 53-man active squad, and the fourth-year back is cautiously optimistic that they will do just that.
"Right now I feel pretty confident that they will, but the decision has not been made yet," said Williams on Monday after a particularly intense "bonus" practice in the morning. "I definitely think I can come in and help the team. My role, how much I get to play or whatever, that's on the coaches. I'm going in to contribute. Week-in and week-out, that's how I'm going to prepare myself."
Williams has been practicing with the team for close to three weeks, which is the window provided by the NFL for a team to assess a player returning from injury and possibly coming off the PUP list. On Monday, the Bucs erected another hurdle for the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year to clear on his comeback, putting the team in pads and running some drills specifically to get him hit.
Williams said the practice was an eye-opener, and it wasn't easy, but it gave him confidence that he's ready to take the next step and play in a live game.
"It's tough; you're padded up and you've got to make cuts in and out of the hole," he said. "It's tough, but I've put in a lot of work so I definitely feel like I'm up to it."
That's Yule tide music to the Bucs' ears. Coming up as rapidly as the holiday season is crunch time in the NFC playoff race and the team can use every offensive weapon it can get its hands on.
"This guy's a hell of a back," said Gruden. "This guy's a very good back, and we have film to prove that. We want him to be a big part of our organization. So if he's healthy, he's going to play here, and if he's not he won't."
Williams' return could be coming at the perfect time for a Buccaneers team that has seen its backfield depleted by injuries…if that's still a concern, that is. Tampa Bay went into its bye week with health concerns regarding three key backs – B.J. Askew (hamstring), Warrick Dunn (back) and Earnest Graham (knee) – but might just come out of it at full strength.
"We had most people accounted for on the practice field today," said Gruden. " Warrick returned today and Earnest, we'll see where he is on Wednesday. He hurt his knee. He has a chance to play in this game but I can't really tell you anymore until Wednesday when we see him here in the next 48 hours."
All three backs were singing songs of hope, to varying degrees, in the locker room after practice.
"I should be fine," said Dunn, who missed the Week Nine game at Kansas City and had just one carry in Dallas in Week Eight due to his injury. "For me [the bye week] did [help]. Just the days of not running around, not getting hit – that helps. I don't care who it is, that helps. And for me, I pretty much had two weeks, two and a half weeks. It's good, I'm good."
Graham has been such a warrior for the Buccaneers this year, taking on whatever role the team has needed without complaint, that it seems hard to imagine him missing time. But the knee injury that he played with for most of the game in Kansas City was one of the team's top concerns during the bye week. It will remain a primary focus for the Buccaneers as they prepare for Minnesota.
"I think I'll be alright," said Graham "We've just got to monitor it during the week. We'll see how it feels on game day. Right now there are a couple things still lingering but I think I'll be alright."
Askew, who hasn't played since Week Three due to a troublesome hamstring pull, seemed a little less certain than Graham or Dunn but was eager to keep testing his leg this week.
"I think right now it's still up in the air," said Askew. "That's a possibility. I really can't give a guarantee right now. I've still got to go a couple more days of practice and see how it feels."
It hasn't been easy, but the Buccaneers have survived Askew's down time with a variety of fullback solutions, from Byron Storer (now on injured reserve) to Graham to the re-signed Jameel Cook. They can do the same against Minnesota, if necessary, but are looking forward to the day when Askew can resume his important role.
"He was scheduled to be our opening-day starter and our every-down starter, but he's missed six or seven games and six or seven weeks," said Gruden. "He missed the entire training camp. Our guys have adjusted quite well in his absence but we would certainly like to have him."
As for Williams, he has been welcomed back to the practice-field huddle with open arms. The running back corps, led by Graham, is a particularly selfless bunch that only wants to see the team succeed, no matter who is touching the football. On Monday, Gruden cautioned against expecting Williams to step right back in and take the lead role, but the Buccaneer backs will take whatever help he can offer.
"It's great to see him back," said Graham. "Right now he looks really good…really, really, really good. I think everybody is anticipating seeing him get some live action, as far as a football game is concerned. It's a team game, like I always said. Cadillac was a great back and hopefully he's getting back to that same form. It definitely doesn't hurt to have another starting back in this game. Especially with the way the season is going, with us having a great chance to be in the postseason, we definitely need him back."