Former bust in midst of improbable comeback
RENTON, Wash. – Seattle Seahawks receiver Mike Williams would prefer to focus on the future, but he understands why everyone feels a need to talk primarily of his past. After all, it’s not too often that a former first-round draft pick bottoms out, spends two years away from the game, and comes back under the most improbable circumstances to become the leading offensive threat for a franchise trying to find its way back from a losing mentality.
“Well, that fills up the columns,” he said with a laugh after Wednesday’s practice at the Seahawks’ facility in preparation for 4-2 Seattle’s Week 8 contest against the Oakland Raiders. “You have to throw in Detroit, you’ve gotta throw in Maurice Clarett … don’t you all have like certain characters you have to keep [writing in there], too?
“My past is exactly what it is; it’s in the past, but it’s still something that happened and people are going to talk about it, and that’s fine. Does it get repetitive? Yeah, but hopefully I can go out and play well, and people will start talking more about what I’m doing now.”
What he’s doing now is putting up numbers reminiscent of the college stats that helped him initially get to the NFL. In his past two games, Williams has caught 21 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown – more than what he produced with the Raiders in 2007. The premature stint with Oakland seemingly brought to a close an NFL career that had a horrific start.
The former USC star left school early and entered the NFL draft process under the Maurice Clarett Rule, but had to sit out the entire 2004 NCAA season when he was disallowed from being drafted. Seattle’s Pete Carroll, then Williams’ college coach, tried everything he could to keep Williams from making that decision. Yet, despite a year off, Williams was taken 10th overall by the Detroit Lions and then-general manager Matt Millen in the 2005 draft.
Though finally in the NFL, Williams continued to experience turbulent times. His immaturity and inexperience combined with the historic dysfunction Millen was creating kept the franchise reeling. In two seasons with the Lions, Williams started just six games, and caught 37 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns. He quickly began to believe that any chance of success was predicated on his exit from the Lions.
Williams got his wish in 2007 when Millen traded him to the Raiders, allowing him to reunite with former USC assistant coach Lane Kiffin. However, that didn’t last long. Williams played in just four games for the Raiders. His USC connections led to another opportunity that season, this time with former Trojans offensive coordinator Norm Chow and the Tennessee Titans. But there was no chance by then – Williams weighed more than 270 pounds when he signed and never made the lineup.
That was rock bottom, and the next two years were all about finding answers and working his way back.
“I’m not the person I was back then, physically and mentally,” Williams, 26, said this week. “I just want to do well – I’ve played football for a long time. I just wanted to clean the slate and have an opportunity to compete at the highest level. I want to be accountable in all things as a player, and I’ve embraced my role on this team. I enjoy being here, enjoy being around my teammates. I’m having a lot of fun, and that shows up in the way I play.”
Sounds simple, but it wasn’t. Last fall, Williams spoke to Carroll, who was unwittingly finishing his nine-year stint at USC, about his own desires to make it back to the NFL. The conversation was short, by all accounts – Williams was working with a trainer near Atlanta and looked much better, but Carroll was understandably skeptical. It wasn’t until Carroll left for the Seahawks job shortly before USC’s football program was sanctioned by the NCAA that the thought of a reunion became a reality. Williams was invited to participate in offseason training, just so Carroll could get a sense of what the receiver had left.
And Williams got the message early on that there would be no scholarships – Carroll cut loose former Trojans LenDale White(notes) and Lawrence Jackson(notes) near the start of a roster purge that has seen more than 200 total transactions to date under the team’s new regime. Signed by the team on April 16, Williams showed up for training camp at 233 pounds, drew raves from everyone from Carroll to new GM John Schneider to Seattle’s quarterbacks, and made his way to a starting role by the beginning of the regular season. The Seahawks’ dissatisfaction with entrenched receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) and Deion Branch(notes) was exacerbated – and ultimately solved – by Williams’ efforts, when Houshmandzadeh was released a week before the opener and Branch was traded to the New England Patriots on Oct. 11.
“How they get sidetracked or lose focus or whatever, that’s their business, but I think the thing you have to admire is that he’s been able to turn his career around,” said Oakland coach Tom Cable, who oversaw the team’s offensive line when Williams was with the Raiders. “That tells you that he has great character and he’s looked in the mirror [and said], ‘If I want to do this, I’ve got to straighten up,’ whatever that is, and he’s done those things.”
[Photos: Images of Williams’ incredible comeback]
Primarily, he’s reestablished himself as a big, physical target with the ability to reach outside of any coverage and make circus catches against the best defenders in the game. Carroll, who didn’t even want the media talking to Williams until he was sure that the move would work out, now has nothing but praise for the player who helped him turn USC around nearly a decade ago.
“[At USC], we found over the years that the big receivers drew the attention of the quarterbacks,” Carroll said one day after Williams caught 11 passes against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7. “And there’s a difference when you’re throwing to a guy who’s 6-foot-5. Just the feel of things in space, and the availability of the receiver, and the knowledge that he’ll make plays if the quarterback gets the ball anywhere near him. It gives the quarterback confidence, and we recruited to that. We tried to get big guys, just to continue to have that available to us, and Mike is doing exactly that right now. [Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes)] is benefiting from that – he knows that he can throw the ball in a wide range area, and Mike’s going to find a way to make a play. I think that’s the trust Matt’s talking about.
“This is the way I’ve known him over the years and so to me, this is what he should be doing. I’m hoping that we can get accustomed to that and Mike can have seven-, eight-, nine-catch games and it’s kind of what we’re expecting. Matt really felt comfortable going to him and used him quite readily.”
For Williams, the trust in Carroll has made all the difference. “I respect him and his approach to the game, and what he expects out of players. It means a lot to be here; to be on this road with him, as opposed to somebody I don’t know. It’s great to see how far we can take it – I think we’re both excited, but we both also feel that this is supposed to happen. It’s not like a miraculous ‘pat you on the back’ type of thing.”
Williams has been soft-spoken through the experience; humble to a fault when asked early on about his prospects for making it back and deferential when the unprecedented nature of the comeback is discussed now. Perhaps it’s because he understands the fragile nature of the accomplishment, and the strength it took to make it happen.
Doug Farrar is a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports’ Shutdown Corner