Bucs rookie Williams shedding ‘quitter’ label

TAMPA, Fla. – This is a play you don’t usually see from two guys playing in their fifth season together, let alone their first exhibition game.

Williams was the 11th WR taken in the draft.
(J. Meric/Getty Images)

Facing third-and-3 in the first quarter Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins, second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) looked to his right to see rookie wide receiver Mike Williams lined up against cornerback Vontae Davis(notes).

Davis was in Williams’ face, trying hard to tie up Williams and take away any short throw. As Freeman and Williams looked at each other, they silently decided it was time to take a little gamble.

Williams went over the top, running a 30-yard fade route to the right sideline. Give Davis credit, he hung tough with Williams all the way as Freeman fired a high-arcing pass – a “trash can” throw, in football terms, where the quarterback seemingly tries to land the toss in an imaginary waste basket at the other end.

As great as the throw was, there was still a problem. Normally, a wide receiver is taught to attack the ball, leaping in an effort to catch it at the highest point possible. Davis was too close for that to work.

“If I put my hands up to go get it, [Davis] was going to know the ball’s coming,” Williams said. “He’d just knock it away.”

So Williams piled a healthy bit of sly on top of the chutzpah it took for two pups to run this play. He kept his arms down by his side and did a “late catch” on the pass, snagging the ball after it dropped past his shoulder. He then got both feet down to complete a play that caught Davis by surprise.

The reception set up a touchdown. Even more important, this is the kind of play that’s part of building a foundation.

“I saw Vontae after the game and he said, ‘I didn’t even know the ball was in the air,’ ” said Williams, a fourth-round pick who has quickly worked himself into the Buccaneers’ starting lineup. Williams is not just going to be a starter, he’s likely to be Freeman’s top outside receiver this season and possibly the Bucs’ focal point at wideout for years to come.

Williams and Freeman are supposed to be Tampa Bay’s version of Reggie Wayne(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes), or Marvin Harrison(notes) and Manning, or Jerry Rice and either Joe Montana or Steve Young.

They are the foundation of what the Bucs believe is a bright future. This is a big reason why the Bucs fired former head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen after the 2008 season, hoping to go from a patchwork attack to a slab foundation.

“In the past, we brought in some veteran guys,” said cornerback Ronde Barber(notes), who has spent his entire 14-year career with the Bucs and been part of the team’s most glorious period. “We brought in Keyshawn [Johnson], we brought in Keenan [McCardell], we brought in Joe Jurevicius(notes). But we never took the time to develop that quarterback-receiver relationship, making it fit. This is definitely a step in that direction, to build something long term.

“This is how you have to do it. This is how Peyton and Reggie Wayne and Peyton and Marvin Harrison … that’s what they did. They came in together and put down roots for a lot of years. If you want a successful vertical passing game, that’s what you have to do. Being able to say that we’re committed to something on that side of the ball is something good for us. We’ve never built the offense from the ground up the way we did with the defense years ago.”

Williams and “committed” may seem like an odd pairing, considering most of the NFL considered him a quitter. Taking in the story of Williams’ exit from Syracuse is like trying to read the bottom line of an eye chart. You have no chance to understand it from long distance.

After an impressive true sophomore season in which he was named second-team All-Big East Conference, Williams was kicked out of school for cheating after bringing unauthorized notes to an exam. He maintains the situation was misunderstood, but he didn’t tuck tail from the situation. Williams worked his way back into the school rather than go elsewhere.

Upon his return, Williams was named a team captain last season and was having a strong junior season with 49 receptions for 746 yards and six touchdownss in seven games. However, he was suspended for the Akron game on Oct. 24 for violating team rules. His Orange career abruptly ended a week later.

On Nov. 1, Williams and three teammates got into an early-morning car accident. The car in which Williams was a passenger was rear-ended. The next day, Williams – whose judgment had been called into question because of previous incidents – claims to have been told by first-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone that he would be suspended for the remainder of the season.

Williams took a little time to consider his options and figured his best course was to turn pro at that point. It was quickly reported that Williams had simply quit – not that he had quit after being suspended.

“He walked up to me and voluntarily took himself off the team. That’s it,” Marrone said at the time, according to published reports. “I’m not going to discuss the conversation from my end.”

In NFL circles, that story went over like a crying baby on a red-eye flight. Quitting a team ranks just below gambling in the list of NFL taboos. Teams will tolerate drinking, drug use and violence far more than they will a quitter.

“Yes; absolutely,” Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said when asked if the perception of quitting is what dropped Williams so far. “The guy has never had a drug problem, never had an alcohol incident, never hit anybody. He has had some school issues, but it was what happened at the end of the season with Coach Marrone.”

To this day, Williams seems stupefied by the label.

“When I heard that and read that on the Internet – people thought I quit – it was embarrassing,” said Williams, a genuinely friendly young man who smiles and laughs easily.

Again, Williams didn’t hide from the situation. Instead, he offered the phone numbers of people being sought to provide information about him. He still does. And privately, Marrone offered his help. Marrone told NFL scouts who came through Syracuse that he would be willing to talk directly to any general manager to explain what had happened. In this case, Marrone felt he had to establish certain boundaries for the long-term benefit of his tenure as coach, even if that meant sacrificing a star player.

Williams waits for the ball while being covered by Davis.
(Steve Mitchell/US Presswire)

“He told me, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to do this for the whole team,’ ” said Williams, who said he carries no ill will toward Marrone.

Instead, he carries it against the rest of the NFL. Only three teams took the time to call Marrone about Williams. In April, 100 players were taken before the Bucs nabbed him.

“We had this plan, and I give Mark Dominik a lot of credit for following it,” said Bucs coach Raheem Morris. “Now, with every pick, I was like, ‘Can we take him now?’ I was worried.”

Based on the early returns, Morris had ample reason to be nervous. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Williams is not only gifted athletically but also has an intuitive understanding of how the game works – and the work ethic to be great.

“I really got the sense of how bright he was when we were going over this one route he ran in college,” said Tampa Bay wide-receivers coach Eric Yarber, who added that Williams is one of the best young receivers he has ever had at understanding the technical side of plays from the moment they are shown on a Power Point presentation. “It was an option route, where he could run a post or corner route. The way the safety had him shaded, he should have run a post. But he ran a corner, so I asked him to explain why.”

Williams explained that the safety on the other side of the field was shaded to the middle of the field, meaning that if he ran the post, the pass was either going to get intercepted or Williams was going to get hit hard when the ball got there. Either way, the chance for success was limited.

So Williams improvised. Instead of one fake, he gave two, showing the corner route, showing the post and then finally committing to the corner route after the first safety covering him bought the second fake.

Touchdown.

In much the same way, Williams’ big catch against Miami was another example of his intuitive understanding of the game.

“Those subtle things, those are polished receiver tricks. For him being 23 years old, that’s impressive,” Barber said.

Again, the most important part is that Williams’ work has earned the trust of Freeman.

“I looked out there, saw bump coverage, we made eye contact and it’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s on.’ No doubt,” Freeman said of the 30-yard toss. Freeman sounded as if Williams was a guy he has played with since high school.

Since being drafted, Williams has spent the offseason learning the offense and working constantly with Freeman. Off days were spent catching passes, and the first day of training camp featured some overtime when Williams wanted to perfect his slant-and-go route with a couple of extra throws.

“It’s really hot, just exhausting, and after practice he was like, ‘Yo, you want to get some more work in?’ ” Freeman said. “As a quarterback, you love to see that.”

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Aug 19, 2010