RB Cadillac Williams is off to a slower start than a year ago, but that is the product of several factors
Last season, the 24 emblazoned on Cadillac Williams' jersey must have felt like Superman's emblem; this season it's closer to resembling a target.
Fresh out of Auburn in 2005, the fifth overall selection of that year's NFL Draft wasted no time announcing his arrival to the league. In his first three games as a professional, Williams carried the ball 88 times for a rookie-record 434 rushing yards, becoming the first running back in NFL history to debut with three straight 100-yard performances. By the time the season ended, Williams had rushed for 1,178 yards and six touchdowns on his way to earning recognition as NFL Rookie of the Year, all despite a foot injury that cost him a big chunk of the middle of the season.
One offseason and two games into the 2006 season, Williams' has seen everything flipped around. If he was Superman in '05, this year he's stumbled into the "Bizarro" world, where everything is opposite of what it should be. Not only are the Buccaneers 0-2 after starting last season with four straight wins, Williams' numbers have been nearly absent during this stretch. Through his first two games this year, Williams has carried 23 times for 59 yards. At the same time last year, he had rushed for 217 more yards and was gaining more than twice his current 2.6 yards per carry.
That stark drop in production is likely the product of a "perfect storm" of factors converging on the Buccaneers: health, greater familiarity among defenses and a passing game that has yet to materialize into an early scoring threat.
The good news for the Buccaneers is that issue number one, Williams' health, is not a lingering concern. Williams, who last week was listed on the team's injury report with back spasms, appeared to play at full capacity Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden. Those spasms did force Williams to miss portions of the Bucs' season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, a game in which he carried the ball only eight times for 22 yards. His relatively low totalof touches against Atlanta this past Sunday – he totaled 15 – had more to do with the Buccaneers trailing in the score and being forced to pass in an attempt to catch up.
"It's 14-3 with eight minutes left," Gruden said, explaining the prohibitive effects of the score. "We were obviously not going to run the ball and let the clock put us out of the game. We're going to have to throw the football when we're behind by 11 points with eight or nine minutes left in the game. And we're going to throw the ball in the two minute drill prior to the end of the first half.
"I will be the first to say I would like to give it to him every play, but sometimes circumstances don't allow that."
The Bucs were obviously concerned about the condition of Williams' back heading into Sunday's game in the Georgia Dome, but they are less worried now.
"I think he had a great pregame," said Gruden. "I thought he showed up at the stadium basically ready to go. I know he feels much better this morning although it did inhibit him a little bit last week on the practice field. Clearly he is a guy who needs to practice and thrives on that. We are hoping this week that he can go on the practice field."
Also contributing to Williams' slow start is the caliber of defense he has faced thus far, coupled with that fact that he – and the division champion Buccaneers – no longer have the advantage that comes with being an unknown commodity.
"I feel like it's a combination of everything," Williams said. "I'm no surprise anymore. We're not a surprise, as a team."
Williams may be right. Last season, the Buccaneers came out of nowhere to win 11 games and the division behind new starting quarterback Chris Simms and Williams, who was a rookie. Now, as defending NFC South champions, the Bucs clearly have the target on their proverbial chest, and Williams – through no fault of his own – has supplied the league's defenses with a year's worth of game film by which to study his every move. Such is the cost of excelling in the NFL.
Add to that the fact that the Buccaneers have faced two stout defenses in consecutive weeks to start the season, and their offensive ineffectiveness can at least be explained if not excused. Neither the Falcons nor Ravens defenses have surrendered a touchdown in eight quarters of play. Baltimore has allowed six total points in two games, and the Falcons have surrendered but nine. While it's safe to say the Buccaneers expect much more from themselves, they certainly have faced what appears to be two of this year's tougher defenses. It won't get any easier Sunday when they welcome the traditionally defense-oriented Carolina Panthers to Raymond James Stadium.
A third and final reason for Williams' early slump is the failure of the Buccaneers' passing game to demonstrate its ability to hurt defenses that are crowding the box, playing to defend the run. It goes without saying that Williams is the straw that stirs the Buccaneers' offense. The Bucs are 6-0 when he rushes for more than 100 yards. Defenses around the league know this and have been committed to making sure Williams never gets going. Until defenses are forced to worry about the Buccaneers' passing game, Williams will continue to see eight-man fronts, run blitzes and various schemes keyed on shutting him down.
"His yards per carry, the looks that we're giving him aren't the same," Gruden said. "And there are some defenses I think that are content on making us do something we don't want to do on first and second down. Until we prove we can do it, it's going to be a little hard to run the football. So, it's a combination of those things. And when you get behind, as we've been behind in the fourth quarter the last two weeks, not a lot of teams are going to be persistent running the football unless they are trying to go home quick.
"We need to run more and we need to run more effectively, and throwing the ball sometimes will help you do that."
Despite the obstacles, Williams remains confident in his abilities as well as those of his teammates, and he vows to get back on track.
"I've been playing this game a long time," Williams said. "I've been down; I've been on top. You just stick through the rough times. I promise you, we're definitely going to come out of it. We're just getting everybody on track, keeping the guys up front going, the defense – we're just becoming one. We're going to be a tough team because we have a good ball team."