TAMPA — The past two years, Cadillac Williams could only work, wait and wonder when he might return to playing football.
But for the first offseason since 2007, with two devastating knee injuries behind him, Williams can focus on bigger goals.
Williams, 28, led the Bucs in rushing last season with 823 yards and four touchdowns on 211 carries (3.9 average).
But in 2009, the important number to Williams was 16 — the most games he had played in one season during his five-year career. So nobody could blame Williams if he took a measure of personal satisfaction walking off the field after the Bucs' 20-10 home loss to Atlanta on Jan. 3.
The key term is walking — not riding off the field on a cart.
"Teamwise, recordwise, it just wasn't a very good year overall," Williams said. "But individually, for me to go 16 games, for both knees to hold up just fine, once the season was over, it was like a sigh of relief, it was like I had really accomplished something. It made the two years, all the hard work I had put in worthwhile. I could sit down and actually kind of pat myself on the back."
In 2007, Williams ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee at Carolina in the fourth regular-season game. He returned by midseason in 2008, only to tear the patellar tendon in his left knee against Oakland in the final regular-season game.
But this offseason, Williams is like every other player trying to prepare for the best season of his career.
"It's been fantastic because basically, your whole mind-set is different," Williams said. "I'm not going in with all kinds of questions: 'When will I be back at practice? Are the knees going to hold up?' It was more of me not specifically working on my skills but just trying to get back on the field.
"This year, it's a matter of me fine-tuning my skills, doing a lot of film work. So the whole mentality is different. The whole offseason has been totally different, and I feel good."
By all accounts, Williams has not missed a day of work in the offseason program and organized team activities.
"I don't miss a day. When you've done been through what I've been through, every day to walk onto that field is like a blessing," Williams said. "You just count them. Once I have an opportunity to step into this building and go out on that field, it's all smiles because I love it. And in a split second, I know it can all be taken away from me."
The work ethic has not been lost on Bucs coaches, particularly offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Williams is working as the No. 1 running back with Earnest Graham as the starting fullback.
"If you had been around the last two years, you had a chance to see just how hard and strenuous he was working in the offseason," Olson said. "You feel like he has a chance this year to have a 'normal' offseason. Everyone is working in the offseason, but no one worked like Cadillac did the last two years. So now he has a chance to get his legs back under him, and we're excited about that.
"He's been here every day. We didn't see Derrick Ward (Tuesday), and he may miss this week. But here's a guy who shows up every day, keeps his mouth shut and just goes to work. I've got all respect in the world for that player. Again, unless you're here every day seeing the guy and seeing what he's gone through the last two years, and knowing his commitment to this franchise, it's pretty impressive."
Even more impressive was that Williams got stronger as the season wore on. His best performance came at New Orleans in the 15th game when he rushed 24 times for 129 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 overtime upset of the eventual Super Bowl champs.
"I am a goal guy, and I think very highly of myself and my God-given ability with my will and determination," Williams said. "It's no longer me just trying to feel my way through it and rehabbing and trying to get back. I feel better now than I've ever felt. My goals are very high. I definitely want all those accolades — the Pro Bowl, to be one of the top rushers in the league — and I feel like that's coming in the near future."