Tampa Bay running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams' NFL career was in doubt this time last year.
The NFL Rookie of the Year and 2005 first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tore his patellar tendon in a Week 4 contest vs. the Carolina Panthers in 2007.
Williams underwent season-ending surgery and faced an uncertain future in the NFL. But Williams' hard work and rehabilitation paid off Wednesday when he took the practice field with his teammates for the first time in over a year.
"It's been a long time," said Williams. "This is the beginning, and the next couple of weeks will tell how I'm doing in practice. It's not something where I'm practicing today and they're going to throw me in the game on Sunday and give me the ball. We're going to be careful with it, but at the same time this is an exciting time for me."
The former Auburn standout received praise from head coach Jon Gruden, general manager Bruce Allen, among others, throughout the offseason for his relentless approach to the rehabilitation process.
"It was a difficult injury, and as Coach Gruden would say, his work ethic has been documented," said Bucs running backs coach Rich Bisaccia. "What he's done over the summer and during training camp and early in the mornings and the way he's worked with our training staff, it's been phenomenal. I'm certainly proud of him and just proud to be part of it."
Williams feels like part of the team again. That's something he couldn't say while rehabbing since he missed all offseason workouts and was placed on the physically unable to perform list in July, which prevented him from practicing with his teammates.
"You feel useless," Williams said when reflecting on the rehab process. "I'm doing my thing and the team is doing their thing, so in a way you don't feel like part of the team. But you are part of the team. It wasn't a good feeling to have.
"I've been going to meetings, but now I get to go out on the practice field and fly around with the guys. That's the good part."
The Bucs held a light workout at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday, and no one was happier to have Williams back on the football field again than Gruden, who witnessed firsthand how committed Williams was to returning from the devastating knee injury.
"It was emotional seeing him out there," Gruden said of Williams. "You take football away from Cadillac Williams, and you take a big part of him away. He's missed the game. I've missed him. Our team has missed him. To see him back out there running after the way his knee looked is an awesome job by him, and our training staff. It is an incredible, whatever you want to call it, progress he has made in one year. It is just great to see him back.
"What you haven't seen is what he's been doing. He's pushed himself like nothing I've ever seen. "He's got a chance to be ready tomorrow knowing him, but he has to get back to playing speed. Get re-acclimated to football. It has been over a year since he put a football helmet on. Tomorrow will be the first time for him."
Williams' teammates have welcomed him back with open arms and feel he adds something special to their team, even if it doesn't come immediately in the form of yardage or touchdowns.
"It is just awesome to see Cadillac Williams, a guy who has been through so much in a brief career as far as injuries," said Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia. "He's a great player, great abilities, he's worked extremely hard to overcome the injury he sustained last year. I think it is a great boost, a great lift for this team to see a guy like that come back. Especially not even knowing what capacity he will have on the field for us. Him coming back and being out on the field I think will be boost for the running back position just energy-wise. Those guys are doing a great job, and Rich Bisaccia is doing a great job of coaching them, but to get a guy who has been their running mate in the past years is a good thing."
Added Williams' teammate and close friend Michael Clayton: "He's a guy I'm excited for coming back. He's going to give this team energy. When you see a guy work hard – kind of like Earnest Graham has done for years and then he gets his shot – it brings energy to the team. It's definitely a great feeling for the team when he comes back."
Tampa Bay's locker room has missed Williams, but its running game hasn't exactly struggled during his absence.
Graham rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in Williams' place last year, and he and Warrick Dunn are averaging 4.8 yards per carry and have combined for nearly 1,000 yards rushing through the first seven games of the season. The Bucs ground game currently ranks ninth in the NFL, averaging 130 yards per contest.
Where Williams fits into Tampa Bay's offensive plans has yet to be determined. The team has up to three weeks to decide whether to activate Williams to the 53-man roster or place him on injured reserve.
"He took a lot of the service squad reps," Gruden said of Williams. "We are going to try and increase his stamina, playing stamina, give him some looks as a runner, receiver, and blitz pickup guy. Football will come back quick to him, but his playing strength and stamina, those kinds of things, is something we'll monitor and help him along with."
Williams has conquered the physical challenge of rehabbing from the career-threatening knee injury. He must now overcome the mental hurdle that is associated with returning to the football field after sustaining such a serious knee ailment.
"I don't really have too many issues with [the knee]," Williams said. "To me it's more of my mind and knowing that it's okay. I did a lot of work and put it through a lot. I'm able to do everything without a problem. Now it's just a matter of me overcoming the mental part of it. I believe I'm ready."
BUCS SIGN WR WARREN TO PRACTICE SQUAD
Tampa Bay made several practice squad moves on Wednesday, signing former wide receiver Paris Warren and linebacker Kyle Shotwell, and releasing fullback Ryan Powdrell.
The Bucs only had to release one player since a roster spot opened up last week when the team promoted WR Brian Clark to the active roster and released LB Matt McCoy.
Warren originally entered the NFL in 2005 as a seventh-round draft pick with the Bucs. He played in eight games and had five catches for 63 yards with Tampa Bay before being released before the start of the 2008 regular season.
Shotwell had a practice squad stint with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007 and spent the 2008 offseason with the Indianapolis Colts.
BUCS AUDITIONING PLAYERS FOR RETURN JOBS
The Buccaneers invested a second-round draft pick in wide receiver Dexter Jackson as part of a plan for him to solidify Tampa Bay's punt and kickoff return jobs, but the rookie hasn't delivered.
Jackson's teammates, head coach Jon Gruden and special teams coordinator Richard Bisaccia have continued to support Jackson despite his struggles, and he understands why some heavy criticism has come his way for diving to the turf to avoid contact and an overall lack of production in the return game.
"I've seen a lot of return specialists run out of bounds when guys are coming, whether it's Reggie Bush or some of the other guys," said Jackson. "It's longevity in football. I just try to play hard.
"My teammates have been real supportive. It's my first year. I was drafted in the second round, so a lot is expected of me. I'm just trying to stay focused and keep working hard."
Jackson has struggled mightily as a punt returner, averaging just 4.9 yards per attempt. His long came vs. Green Bay when he broke off a 19-yard punt return.
Although he is averaging 23.4 yards per kickoff return on 14 attempts with a long of 45, Jackson mishandled a kickoff to start the second half vs. Seattle, recovered the ball and fumbled again before Tampa Bay defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson recovered the loose ball, which resulted in him being benched on kickoff returns in favor of WR Michael Clayton, who is unsure whether he will handle those duties against vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
"I don't know. It's by committee," Clayton said. "Anybody can be back there right now. We need some big plays in the kickoff returns. A lot of guys can do it."
Gruden suggested on Monday that the team would give serious consideration to replacing Jackson as a return specialist, and the former Appalachian State standout acknowledged on Wednesday that he could be headed for the bench.
"It's a possibility and it's open to competition," Jackson said when asked if he was being replaced on special teams. "I trust Coach Gruden's judgment. I just come out here and keep competing and trying to get better each week."
Once practiced ended on Wednesday, Gruden suggested to the media that several players were auditioning for the punt and kickoff return jobs in Tampa Bay.
"I gave a lot of thought to it, an awful lot of thought to it," said Gruden. "We have some candidates that we are looking at. We will evaluate through the course of this week. We will put two or three guys in there in a lot of game situations and try to improve it, and try to improve our tackling. I wasn't very happy with the way we ran down and covered. We gave Seattle too good of field position.
"We have to get better. I still think that Dexter Jackson is a young player. I think he is a promising player, a talented guy. We aren't giving up on him. I'll make myself perfectly clear, we are not giving up on him. We will evaluate who is healthy, who is able and active, and who can give us the upgrade we are looking for."
BUCS NOT TAKING DALLAS, QB JOHNSON LIGHTLY
Many pundits projected the Dallas Cowboys to make the Super Bowl this year. Pro Bowl Tony Romo had a lot to do with those predictions, but he missed last Sunday's game with a broken pinkie and will not play vs. the Buccaneers due to the same ailment.
That's a significant loss since Romo had completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 1,689 yards and tossed 14 touchdowns and five interceptions before sustaining the hand injury.
Romo also gave the Buccaneers problems the last time Tampa Bay and Dallas clashed, which was Thanksgiving Day in 2006. He completed over 70 percent of his passes for 300-plus yards and tossed five touchdowns en route to Dallas' 38-10 win over Tampa Bay.
Replacing Romo in the starting lineup is former Bucs QB Brad Johnson, who led Tampa Bay to a win in Super Bowl XXXVII. Johnson, 40, has completed 50 percent of his passes for 234 yards and tossed one touchdown and three interceptions. He struggled during Dallas' stunning 34-14 loss to St. Louis last week, but 5-2 Tampa Bay ‘s defense is not taking 4-3 Dallas's offense lightly.
"If you think they can't get the ball downfield because Romo isn't playing or they can't be a productive offense because he's not out there it would be a mistake on our part," said Bucs linebacker Cato June. "We're preparing as if they're full power, whether it's Johnson or Romo, I think they both have the ability to go out there and make big plays. They have a lot of great players around them."
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden knows Johnson better than most. Johnson made the Pro Bowl in 2002 en route to leading Tampa Bay to its first and only Super Bowl.
"It'll be great," Gruden said of playing vs. Johnson. "I love that guy. I've texted him and talked to him a few times. Periodically we stay in touch over the years. He is special to me and always will be very special. He's a world champion. I wish him the best. He's a stud."