RB Cadillac Williams has been key to the Bucs' 4-0 start, so the team would like to have him on the field for game five
Carnell "Cadillac" Williams felt better on Thursday than he did on Wednesday, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope that is the beginning of a path that will get the rookie running back into uniform on Sunday.
Williams once again did little on the Bucs' practice field, and his status on the official injury report remains questionable. Still, Head Coach Jon Gruden said he was encouraged by the progress Williams has made in recovering from a strained foot and a tender hamstring.
Gruden also very directly reiterated a thought he expressed on Wednesday: Williams' game-day status will be determined solely by the clearance he does or does not receive from the team's medical staff. If the electric rookie, who ranks third in the NFL with 447 rushing yards, can overcome his injuries by Sunday, he will not be held out of the game against the New York Jets simply for precautionary reasons. Thus, the final determination on Williams' status will probably not come until game day in New York.
"If the guy's able to play, he'll play," said Gruden. "We've got to win games. I've got a lot of concern with this game. But, Jiminy Christmas, there aren't a lot of guys in our locker room who feel good right now. That's just the way it is.
"The guy has a strained arch and with that has come maybe some slight tightness in his hamstring. Every player in football has got to deal with it – young, old, we've got a number of guys who are in similar straits as this guy. When you're a running back and you're counting on your feet and your counting on your cutting ability, obviously it's a little more difficult at that position."
Williams has certainly shown a willingness to play with discomfort. In the Bucs' Week Two win over Buffalo, the rookie insisted on returning to the game in the second half after initially hurting his foot just before halftime. He then carried 37 times the following week at Green Bay after hardly practicing on his sore foot. Even after tweaking his hamstring on Sunday against the Lions, he made some noise about going back in, but the Bucs' trainers held firm.
Neither injury is considered particularly serious in the long run, but there has been plenty of sentiment surrounding the team that a week off would help Williams get back to 100%. Gruden and the Bucs' medical staff won't do anything to endanger the back's health, but neither will they arbitrarily sit him for a game if he's ready to go.
"We're not going to fool around with it," said Gruden. "If he's okay to play, if he's cleared by our doctors and trainers, he'll play. If he isn't, he won't. This isn't the preseason. These are regular season games and we have got to win, we have to find ways to win and we need our best players to win games."
Wide receiver Michael Clayton, the Bucs' breakout rookie last year, was also very limited on Thursday, but Gruden expected to have the team's co-leader in receptions back on the field on Friday. Clayton is dealing with a shoulder injury and general soreness that is the result of his hard-nosed style of play.
Gruden said Clayton is working through his soreness and that he isn't worried about the receiver's effectiveness on Sunday.
"He's been limited before. It's not like he wasn't limited the whole offseason and limited at times during camp while he was working himself back in. We've got plenty of alternatives that we're working on, and Ike Hilliard will be a part of it, certainly. Edell Shepherd's a young guy who will get a chance, and we'll see what happens. But we expect Clayton to play and if he doesn't then we'll have guys ready who are."
Gruden also updated the status of two other injured starters, Jermaine Phillips and Anthony Davis. In both cases, his feelings were the same as they were on Wednesday, only a bit stronger. Gruden stopped just short of calling Phillips doubtful for Sunday's game due to his thumb injury but confirmed that Davis would definitely start at left tackle. Davis missed the second half of the Lions game with a shoulder stinger.
New York's Calling
This weekend, the Bucs will be making their first trip to New York since 1997, when they played both the Jets and the Giants in the month of December. For most of the team's young players, it will be their first game, collectively, in the venerable Meadowlands.
Not so for Ike Hilliard, who spent eight very productive years with the Giants, who share Giants Stadium with the Jets. The fourth-leading receiver in Giants history with 368 receptions, Hilliard caught 49 passes for 437 yards last season to cap his New York career.
Hilliard signed with the Bucs in early May and was quickly installed as the third receiver. Through four games with Tampa Bay, he has caught five passes for 33 yards, a pace that would lead to a career-low 20 receptions by season's end (excluding his rookie season, in which he suffered a serious neck injury in just his second game).
That doesn't mean the Bucs have been disappointed with what Hilliard has contributed. The Bucs have run the ball extremely well through the first quarter of the season, meaning fewer passes to go around for everyone. They've also been relatively good at staying out of third-and-long situations, which means fewer three-receiver sets.
"He hasn't had a lot of production because he hasn't had a chance to play much," said Gruden. "But he made a key play to help us beat Green Bay, he made a huge third-down play – two of them – against Buffalo. Put the guy on the field, the guy's a player. I've got a lot of confidence in him. When he gets his opportunity, God knows what he'll do, and we're excited to find out."
The Bucs have two entrenched starters in Clayton and Joey Galloway, but they have very little experience at the receiver position behind those two and Hilliard. Rookies Paris Warren and J.R. Russell and second-year players Shepherd and Mark Jones round out the seven-man receiving corps. Gruden knows Hilliard's eight years in the league will come in handy at some point this season.
"Experience and talent bring things to the table," said Gruden. "This guy's played in the Super Bowl. He's still a young guy, he's got life in his legs and he's a quality receiver."
A 4-0 Rush
The Buccaneers' 4-0 start, and the sudden attention it has brought to the team, is reminiscent of the 1997 season, when the team started off 5-0. This is, in fact, Tampa Bay's first 4-0 start since that breakthrough '97 campaign, and just the third such season opening in franchise history (the 1979 team also started 5-0).
There are some additional parallels between the 1997 and 2005 seasons. This year's 4-0 start is a complete reversal from the opening month in 2004, in which the Bucs went 0-4 before finally getting a win at New Orleans. The 5-0 start in 1997 was a similar reversal, because the 1996 team had started off 0-5.
What is most amazing, though, is how similarly the 1997 and 2005 teams have affected their twin turnarounds. Both teams focused on improving the running game, on offense and defense, and both labors bore immediate fruit. The numbers behind the turnarounds are almost identical in many respects.