Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Bucs' Cadillac driven to succeed

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Cadillac Williams
After battling back from two knee injuries, Cadillac Williams is having a solid season for the Bucs.

Not surprisingly, 22 players are ranked ahead of Cadillac Williams among the NFL's leading rushers for the 2009 season. More extraordinary, though, is that the Tampa Bay tailback is listed at all.

Williams, 27, rushed 24 times for 129 yards in the Bucs' 20-17 overtime victory at New Orleans on Sunday. The performance was Williams' first 100-yard game since he ran for 122 yards against Washington on Nov. 19, 2006, and his biggest output since posting 150 yards against Atlanta on Christmas Eve 2005. The 24 carries were the most for Williams since September 2007.

There have been 105 other 100-yard rushing performances this season. But none of them was quite like the 129-yard effort turned in by Williams, the fifth-year veteran who has overcome catastrophic injuries to both knees in the 2007 and 2008 seasons. And who could be at home counting the $15.1 million guaranteed to him as part of his 2005 rookie contract worth a maximum of $31 million instead of counting every yard as a blessing that he was almost certain he would never have again.

"Every time he touches the ball, whether he gains 1 yard or 10 yards, it's basically a miracle repeated over again," Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton acknowledged after the victory over the Saints. "The odds are that the guy isn't even supposed to be playing. … But he's beaten the odds. And he should be an inspiration to everyone."

Amen.

After a 2005 rookie of the year season during which he rushed for a Bucs rookie-record 1,178 yards and seemed headed to multiple Pro Bowls, then a sophomore year with 798 yards, Williams suffered a torn patella tendon in his right knee in October 2007. After rehabilitating for more than a year from an injury that many experts suggested might be career-ending, Williams subsequently ruptured the patella tendon in his left knee in November 2008.

In the past two years, the former Auburn star has appeared in just 10 games, with only 117 carries and 441 total yards.

Assuming he plays in Sunday's season finale against the Falcons -- and there is no reason to believe he won't -- Williams will have appeared in all 16 games (with 15 starts) of a season for the first time in his career. And although he won't finish the season with 1,000 yards, a threshold he hasn't reached since his rookie year, Williams (with 781 yards to date) almost certainly will go over 800 yards, his most since 2006. For a man who has persevered through injuries that would have ended the career of any player less diligent and dedicated to the game and his teammates, it will be quite an accomplishment.

"I just felt like I owed it to myself and to this organization to do everything that I could to get back on the field," Williams said after Sunday's game. "People have asked me if I was afraid to play again, that [a knee injury] could happen another time. But I was more afraid that I might never play again, and that was [a motivation]."

There are a lot of candidates for the 2009 Associated Press NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, but few are as deserving as Williams. There are no real criteria for the award, but if Williams doesn't best epitomize the term "comeback," who does? Former Pro Bowl-caliber tailback Terry Allen was productive after rehabilitating from anterior cruciate ligament tears to both knees, and perhaps readers will be able to cite (media friends could not) additional players with such monumental comebacks. But we couldn't find anyone in NFL history who returned to the field after multiple patella tendon tears, an injury many orthopedists feel is more severe and career-threatening than a torn ligament.

Bucs officials were so concerned about Williams' future that they signed standout tailback Derrick Ward, formerly of the New York Giants, to a four-year, $17 million free-agent contract this past spring. Tampa Bay also has onetime 900-yard rusher Earnest Graham on its roster. But because of Williams' comeback, Ward has been slotted into the role of complementary back, similar to what he played with the Giants. And Graham has become basically an afterthought.

We were at the Bucs' training camp on July 30, 2005, for Williams' first NFL practice, a session at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla. In that workout, it was immediately obvious he was a special player. That scintillating practice performance came after a nightlong negotiating session about Williams' first contract and after he had gotten less than four hours of sleep.

The fifth overall selection in the 2005 draft, Williams ran that day with a rare combination of speed and power, spun away from would-be tacklers and left many veteran Tampa Bay defenders grasping at air.

In his first three regular-season games, Williams carried 88 times for 434 yards and quickly became the centerpiece of the Bucs' offense. Critics suggested that then-coach Jon Gruden would run him into the ground, but because of the dual injuries, Gruden never got the chance to repeat that workhorse role.

What was obvious in Week 16 was that Williams has compensated nicely for whatever speed he lost to the knee injuries. He is more of a slasher now, a power runner more than a big-play threat, and save for his 23-yard touchdown run over a left tackle in the third quarter, his output at New Orleans came in dribs and drabs. But half of Williams' 24 rushing attempts were for 5 yards or more, and on Tampa Bay's winning drive in overtime, Bucs coaches essentially put the outcome in his hands, with him carrying on nine of 10 plays.

"It was great, given all the time and effort he's put in, to see him playing like that," said middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, a second-round choice in the same 2005 draft that produced Williams. "He deserves it."

Williams may not have been the Cadillac of old, but against the Saints he was hardly a subcompact, either. After a long and painful battle and a career that seemed to be eternally star-crossed, he was back.

Maybe not as good as before, but still plenty good enough.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.