NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Kenny Britt got hurt and the Titans added only Donnie Avery to their group of receivers, some fans were in a panic. They had to sign Terrell Owens, they argued, or trade for Brandon Lloyd. They had to find immediate help.
But like most teams do given such circumstances, the Titans took the patient approach. They drafted Damian Williams out of USC in the third round in 2010. They said they thought he could grow so much that he might one day be a No. 1 receiver.
They certainly didn’t hope he’d be cast in that role now, but here he is.
He has a way to go, but he’s caught a touchdown two weeks in a row and is coming off a breakout game in the win in Carolina, where he turned five catches into 107 yards, breaking the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career.
He’s shown an ability to go up and get the ball and get his feet down as he’s hit. And he’s shown the ability to evade a tackler and run after the catch.
“I think every week you are seeing a guy get better and better,” coach Mike Munchak said. “It’s confidence, it’s the opportunities he is getting. He is making the tough catch like you mentioned last week. He has caught quite a few on the sidelines now and those were some great catches for us. And when you see guys doing that, the quarterback gets more confident to throw the tough throw to him because he is going to go ahead and find a way to make that play. It’s great to see for us.
“He had some drops earlier in the year on some tough catches, but he did a good job of putting that behind him and moving forward and we need him to him to play big as we do other guys if we are going to make a run at this thing here in the last seven weeks.”
One point about Williams’ less-than-speedy development: He wasn’t working with Hasselbeck from the very beginning in training camp.
The team wasted time when Justin Gage was higher in the receiver rotation before it woke up to the fact that Gage wasn’t going to help. (Gage did drop down the preseason depth chart and was cut when rosters were trimmed.) That’s work that could have helped Williams earlier on. But that only partially explains why he’s not been better, faster.
If you don’t have players the caliber of A.J. Green or Julio Jones, the odds of getting a quick contribution from a wide receiver are typically low. If you are a player who stands to benefit from playing with Britt, but then Britt and the attention he draws disappear, things get more difficult.
“Damian has shown that he can make some plays and he’s scored some touchdowns,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck told The Wake Up Zone on 104.5 FM in Nashville earlier this week. “He’s becoming a guy we can depend on, which is important for us.”
Williams said he and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer had a talk after the Titans' Oct. 9 loss at Pittsburgh.
“His biggest point to me is he told me, he sees more in me than I do,” Williams said. “Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but that just lets you know he expects a whole lot from me. He probably expects as much from me as I expect from myself.”
During that loss at Heinz Field, Williams told Palmer he could beat a defender deep. Palmer responded by calling for a deep ball.
“And he's got it on cruise control, which really gets my blood pressure up,” Palmer said the week after that game. “ I told him if I die, I told my wife to sue you because you gave me a heart attack. He got the message and the one he caught for a touchdown is the type of play we expect from him.”
Those exchanges with Williams seemed to spark something.
The challenge for Williams now is maintaining what he’s been doing. From there, he needs to show he’s completely comfortable, where we don’t see any uncertainty out of him and miscommunications with Hasselbeck are minimized.
I think Williams is more self-aware than most of the receivers the Titans have brought in over the years, and that should give them some hope. Still, receivers have been passing through Nashville for years who’ve flashed and faded, and we always need to remember that context.