Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Start of Something Big

In the NFL, Rookie of the Year awards usually portend fabulous careers, and the Bucs are certainly looking ahead when it comes to 2005 winner Cadillac Williams

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RB Cadillac Williams gave the Bucs many reasons to celebrate in 2005, but he's only getting started

Cadillac Williams is a young man of few words, a fact those around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers found out about as quickly as they discovered that Williams is a special player.

The panoply surrounding the Super Bowl found that out on Thursday, too, when the league newcomer – strike that; the former league newcomer – was named NFL Rookie of the Year. Williams humbly accepted his award – he had to be prodded by emcee Rich Eisen to actually pick up the trophy – and he made sure to share the credit with his Buccaneer teammates. And he did so with an economy of words, quickly rejoining his fellow Rookie of the Year finalists in a row of seats on the stage.

But the last thing he said during his brief acceptance speech was the best thing, as far as Tampa Bay fans are concerned: "I'm looking forward to another one."

That would be another season, specifically another season of enormous impact, and hopefully one even greater than the first. That's the beauty of this specific award, particularly in football. It is usually bestowed at the beginning of a wonderful career.

As baseball fans know, that's not necessarily the case in every sport. Ben Grieve anyone? How about Todd Hollandsworth, Eric Hinske or Jason Jennings? Ask a Milwaukee Brewers fan about Pat Listach or a Chicago Cubs fan about Jerome Walton.

One has to look a bit harder in the NFL to find rookies who win the ribbon and then fade into an average career or worse. The particular award that Williams won on Thursday, the one determined by fan voting on NFL.com, has only been around for four years, so it's hard to make a judgment there, although previous winners Jeremy Shockey, Domanick Davis and Ben Roethlisberger seem like a fine bunch to join. But Williams also won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award earlier this month, and the list of players who share that honor is nothing short of brilliant.

One could argue that 2001 choice Anthony Thomas has failed to take off from his award-winning rookie season, but you can go back almost 15 years without finding another player you would put in that category. Mostly they are players who turned into the stars that their rookie seasons foretold – Randy Moss, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Anquan Boldin, Eddie George, Warrick Dunn, Marshall Faulk, Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin and on and on. One can imagine a handful of Hall of Fame acceptance speeches coming from that group, and that's only since 1993. Barry Sanders is also on that list, as are Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen and Earl Campbell. And Tony Dorsett. Uh, Ottis Anderson, too. Franco Harris. We could go on and on, all the way back to the first winner, a man by the name of James Brown who might be the best running back in the history of the game.

So the Rookie of the Year award in the NFL is a source of genuine excitement, a reason to start looking ahead and dreaming big. That was certainly the reaction at One Buccaneer Place on Thursday, as the news came back from Detroit.

"This is a prestigious honor and well-deserved," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Carnell is a great player, and he will continue to prove that. I can't wait for the future."

It's easy for the Buccaneers to envision much greater seasons in the future for Williams, because his debut campaign, as great as it was, could have easily been much better. His NFL-record 434 rushing yards through the first three games of the season came on 88 carries, making it clear that the Bucs planned to give him the ball as often as possible. A foot injury sustained in Game Two, however, basically scuttled that plan for Games 4-9. When he was fully healthy again and running with abandon over the last six games, he was once again the driving force in the Bucs' offense. He finished with 1,178 yards, but even conservative thinking would probably put him around at least 1,400 yards without the freak injury.

In retrospect, though, that chain of events might have been just fine. After proving that he could carry a huge load in the first three games despite the general sense that he is undersized for an NFL back, Williams then demonstrated that he could smoothly handle a heavy dose of adversity and pain.

"The one thing about Carnell that I think was a doubt in a lot of people's minds, but it certainly wasn't in ours, was his resiliency and his toughness," said Running Backs Coach Art Valero. "He got off to a great start, he got a little nicked up, and he fought back and he came back and ended up having an outstanding year."

The Bucs never doubted that the 5-11, 217-pound back out of Auburn could carry the ball on every down. They also never agreed with the "undersized" tag, pointing out that he is roughly the same size as many of the league's most productive backs. Some of those players with whom he was compared are fellow Rookie of the Year alumni. Now the Bucs believe he can produce the same sort of career numbers.

"He showed everybody that one, he is durable like those other guys that are his size, the Tiki Barbers and the Marshall Faulks and Curtis Martins of the world," said Valero. "I think he's got that kind of ability. The key thing for him, and for all of us, is to come back with a great sophomore year, tack on a few more honors, and this time, hopefully, get to be a Pro Bowl guy."

The funny thing was that two of Williams' four competitors for the NFL Rookie of the Year award are headed to the Pro Bowl. That's where San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman and Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu will be a week from Sunday (Tatupu will be playing in Sunday's Super Bowl first). Along with two more linebackers – Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and Cincinnati's Odell Thurman – they formed a tough group for Williams to overcome in the voting. But his victory Thursday among those who eat, drink and sleep football said a couple of things.

One, Williams is the type of player whom fans love to watch.

As noted, the Buccaneer back was also the recipient of the prestigious Offensive Rookie of the Year award given by the AP since 1957. That honor is chosen by a panel of media, which is significant because those voters are very well-informed on the game. However, Williams didn't get too strong of a competition from any of the other offensive rookies. There was no full-season QB starter like Roethlisberger, no ultra-prolific receiver like Michael Clayton or Anquan Boldin, no other back who broke 1,000 yards. Frankly, it was an obvious choice.

But when you're talking about 400,000 fans casting their votes on NFL.com, then you're talking about a player who captured people's imagination. Williams was often exhilarating to watch; when he was healthy, there was often a sense that something big was going to happen. And his big plays and big days were memorable.

He stuck the dagger into Minnesota, ground away in Green Bay to kill the Lambeau Curse and tortured the Falcons twice. The Bucs were trying to run out the clock on a third-and-nine run from the 10 in Carolina, and all he did there was go the full 10 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. That wasn't supposed to happen; a field goal and a 14-point lead was the obvious result. But with Williams, it seemed possible.

And, two, this one was all rookies, not just offensive players.

If there wasn't another serious threat to his offensive award, there was obvious a legion of defensive stars who could have gotten the nod. Merriman had 10 sacks and looked like a force for years to come in San Diego. Tatupu quickly became the heart of a much-improved Seattle defense, and he was running around making critical postseason plays while fan voting was going on in January.

In that sense, Williams' victory on Thursday was the equivalent of Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks' selections as 2005 AP All-Pro First-Teamers on January 9. Barber and Brooks were already Pro Bowlers by that point, but the Pro Bowl has two teams, one for each conference, and multiple players at every position. The AP All-Pro team is basically the single best starting lineup drawn from all the players in the NFL.

That's something for Williams to get excited about, even if he might not express it too outwardly. More importantly, it's something for Buccaneer fans to get excited about. And that something is the future.

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