The situation called for the Bucs to run the football, milk the remaining time off the clock, shake hands and claim their second victory. But for the final nine minutes of the game last week against Atlanta, Cadillac Williams stood still as a sentry on the Bucs sideline, watching someone else do his job. "Sometimes, I find myself sitting and I feel like I haven't played," Williams said. "But it is what it is." Make no mistake, Williams is the Bucs' top tailback. Despite tearing the patellar tendon in both knees during the previous two seasons, he has regained much of the flash and dash that made him the league's offensive rookie of the year in 2005. "As I've told you, I think he's as talented as he has ever been," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said.
So why was Williams as much a fixture on the sideline as the Gatorade bucket in the fourth quarter of the Bucs' 20-17 loss?
It was just the unluck of the draw.
The Bucs remain committed to alternating Williams and Derrick Ward every two series. Williams, who leads the team in rushing with 480 yards and three touchdowns (3.8 average), watched his team go three and out in his two series to start the fourth quarter. Ward finished the game with 13 carries for 29 yards (2.2 average) and had the ball during crunch time.
Leading 17-13 with a first down at the Falcons 39 and just more than three minutes left, Ward carried on three straight plays, gaining 6 yards (including 3 on third and 7). Connor Barth missed a 51-yard field goal, and the Falcons went on to a winning drive.
"We do finally get the situation late in the game to pound it and it's like, 'This is what we've been waiting on,' " said Earnest Graham, the Bucs' leading ballcarrier the past two seasons who has moved to fullback. "That's what we're built for; that's why we have all the running backs here. You would think that we could have success, but we haven't. That's definitely been surprising."
For all the disappointments the Bucs have endured in 2009, their inability to run the football effectively ranks at the top.
Tampa Bay is 23rd in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 98.2 yards per game. Just as astonishingly, the Bucs are one of only three teams (along with the Eagles and Chargers) to not have a player produce a 100-yard rushing game this season.
"For me, that's been a disappointment," Olson said of the rushing attack. "I felt coming into this season that was a strong point. And trying to pinpoint exactly why it hasn't been where it should be, I continue to look at that."
Ward, who signed a four-year, $17 million contract, has refused all interview requests most of the season. But Williams and Graham say alternating series during the game prevents any running back from establishing a rhythm.
"It's tough because you like to be out there to see things and see how the defense plays you," Graham said. "Then all of a sudden, you're off the field, and maybe you get Derrick on the next series, and he hasn't played a play yet. He's got one chance to take advantage, to see what the defense is doing, and he may not see the cut that the other back with a number of carries already would be able to see, just because he's not in his rhythm yet.
"I think there are positives to it, and I think there are negatives to it. Definitely having a fresh back is a big deal. But I'm probably more in favor of having a Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn type of deal where you have the change-of-pace back. … Then you bring in the other guy who's really downhill, and then another who runs 100 miles per hour and can take advantage of the cutback and take it for six. … I think that's probably more effective."
The Bucs' carousel of quarterbacks hasn't helped. Defenses have stacked eight and sometimes nine defenders near the line of scrimmage and dared Josh Johnson and rookie Josh Freeman to beat them throwing the football.
Morris says the problem has been third down. The Bucs are converting 31.3 percent of third-down situations, but opponents have made good on 41.1 percent of their opportunities.
"When you convert the third downs, you have an opportunity to get the rhythm," Morris said. "When you don't convert the third downs, then your series goes by pretty fast and you never get (in a) rhythm."
Like everything else this season, production has taken a backseat to evaluation.
"You know a lot more about Cadillac. You know a lot more about Earnest. And you've got to learn about Derrick," Morris said.
"And next year, when you're good and you have a chance to go down the stretch and wear people down, who is the back you're going to turn around and hand the ball off to 13 times in a row to end the game?"
2009 Bucs rushing statistics