The Tampa Bay Buccaneers named Cadillac Williams their starting running back when the team released its updated depth chart Monday.
That news came as a surprise to some, including Williams, who had a solid training camp and preseason, but heard the news from his mother, who called him as soon as she saw it scroll across the bottom of the television screen.
"What can I say? My mother is a big football fan," said Williams.
The bigger surprise might be the fact that Williams is on the football field. He has, after all, sustained two major knee injuries in as many seasons. Williams' most recent torn patellar tendon injury came in late-December, yet he managed to participate in all of training camp and play well enough to be named the starter.
"When I saw him a year ago it was a pleasant surprise when he played in the season. I didn't think there was any chance he'd be ready to play," said Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson. "To see him go out and make some of those runs, specifically in the Oakland game, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is starting to look like his old self.' One of the saddest experiences I've ever had in my career was seeing him go down in that game. We looked at him last May and I thought he was much further along than he was last year. I've seen a lot from him in training camp. To me, he's much further along right now than he was in that Oakland week. He's had some very impressive runs in practice."
While they've been rooting for him, even some of Williams' teammates are impressed with where their starting running back is in terms of regaining his health and playing form.
"It's amazing," Bucs center Jeff Faine said of Williams' return from two major knee injuries. "You have to really respect his work ethic for pounding on the grindstone and pushing through rehab and getting back as soon as he did. That was after two, back-to-back injuries. It was a shame that the game he got hurt in last year was one he was really doing so well in. He was running one hell of a game [against Oakland]. I'm excited to see him out there. He has a lot of built up aggression that will get unleashed. I expect a lot of big things out of Cadillac this year."
Added Bucs wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who is working his way back from his own ailment – a knee injury and surgery that sidelined him for the entire preseason.
"The guy that always encourages me is Cadillac," said Bryant. "The adversity he's been through and every time he makes a play he acts like it's the first time he's done it. I like that."
Williams rushed for 1,178 yards (4.1 avg.) and six touchdowns en route to earning the NFL Rookie of the Year award in 2005. But the former first-round pick hasn't had the same type of success since then due to injury.
In fact, Williams, 27, has played in just 10 games (five starts) over the past two seasons. He played in just one of Tampa Bay's preseason games as a precaution, and is looking forward to returning to his rookie form in Olson's zone-blocking scheme.
"I still feel like if I get touches I can do some special things with the ball," said Williams. "I'm looking forward to Sunday."
But Williams isn't reading too much into Tampa Bay's depth chart. The Bucs still plan to work their entire stable of running backs, which features Williams, Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham and Clifton Smith, into action throughout the entire season.
"I know right now it's a running back by committee," said Williams. "I'm fine with that, but I also know Coach Morris said he's going to go with the hot guy. If someone gets rolling then that guy is going to see the touches. All three of us want to be in there. We're all competitors. I'm just looking forward to contributing."
Ward, who signed with the Bucs as a free agent this offseason, and Graham are used to sharing the load with other players. Ward had success doing that last year when he and Giants RB Brandon Jacobs each rushed for over 1,000 yards. The players know they'll each get an opportunity to contribute in games this season.
"It really doesn't [matter]," Graham said of the rotation at running back. "That is something I pride myself on. I'm a football player, first and foremost. I do a lot of things on the football field. I play fullback, halfback, and special teams. I do all of them very well. I'm a football player on this team and I'm going to be a big part of this team. I understand that, and I could care less if I run out on the first play. I know I'm going to play quite a bit and be counted on. That's really what it is all about."
The unselfish play and attitude of Tampa Bay's running backs is unique, and also a special quality the Bucs will benefit fit from.
"It's a credit to Cadillac. I think he inspires our team," said Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. "By running out of the tunnel I think he fires up our team, I think by Cadillac going into that first-team huddle he fires up our team. I think he fires up his running back room. I think those guys root for him. Derrick Ward might be the most unselfish player I've been around in years. Earnest Graham might be the most unselfish player I've been around in years. I always tell these guys about being your best self, and I think that room gets it."
Some believe Tampa Bay's backfield is one of the strengths of the team. However, the trio of Williams, Ward and Graham know they must prove that on the football field in order for the Bucs offense to have success.
"I told those guys we'll have to hold off on the nickname until we dominate on the field because we don't want to go into the season with a nickname and if we don't do good we'll be a laughing stock," said Williams. "We'll just hold off on the nickname, and once we get going we'll come up with a good one."