TAMPA — There was a time Cadillac Williams was at the center of the Buccaneers' offense.
He was a breath of fresh air for a team looking for a jolt. He provided just that when, in 2005, he rushed for 434 yards in the first three games of his career. In those games, he averaged 30 touches.
Four years and two reconstructive knee surgeries later, Williams could be turning back the clock.
Williams having been the Bucs' most consistent offensive threat through four games, coaches are vowing to expand his role. His 5 yards-per-carry average is more than standouts such as the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and the Rams' Steven Jackson.
The breakthrough came Sunday against the Redskins. With Derrick Ward out hurt and Earnest Graham succumbing to a hamstring injury in the second half, Williams had a season-high 16 carries.
"It does feel like the old days, where you're getting into that groove, getting into that rhythm," Williams said.
This is a man who carried 37 times in a win at Green Bay in 2005 but has seen his workload limited the past two seasons while he dealt with torn patellar tendons in each knee.
But with a fast start to 2009, Williams has convinced coaches he's ready for more. Besides, at 0-4, the Bucs need all the offense they can find.
"I've got to be committed to the run in our situation, especially with Cadillac Williams," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "I really believe he is back."
The Bucs entered the season planning to use Williams for two series, followed by Ward or Graham for the next two, then the other for one. After that, the 2-2-1 rotation would start again.
But coach Raheem Morris made it clear they were willing to deviate from the plan if circumstances dictated. And the poor start, offensive sluggishness and injuries to Graham and Ward forced them to rethink it.
But there also is a need for caution, particularly because of Williams' injury history and Ward and Graham being highly paid, capable backs, too.
"To have the success that (Williams is) having on Sundays, it makes you want to get a little greedy and have him out there a little longer," Morris said Thursday. "But at the same time, you want to … protect your players. I don't want to ride him into the ground where I don't have him.
"But I also don't want to not use him enough where he can't be effective. I'm trying to find a happy medium."
One reason the Bucs can justify a bigger role for Williams is his development into a well-rounded back.
Drafted fifth overall in 2005, he entered the league trying to overcome a reputation for being a detriment to the passing game. Aspects of his game from his pass catching to pass protection were questioned, and the Bucs went out of their way to replace him on third downs.
But Williams worked diligently at improving. And when running backs coach Steve Logan joined the staff this year, it gave Williams a fresh pair of eyes for his work.
As a result, Williams' 12 catches are second on the team, his 81 yards fourth. On pace for 48 catches, he has never had more than 30 in a season.
"The coaches are putting me in position to catch balls," Williams said. "When coach Logan came in here, he broke down film with me, and he was like, 'This (reputation), that's over with.' For some reason — I may have had a drop here and there — I've always been labeled as a guy who can't catch.
"That's baloney. (Logan) came in and said, 'Look, you're going to be in on passing downs. You're not going to be a guy who carries the ball and comes off on third down. We're going to make you an every-down back.' Once they told me that, it was like Christmas for me."
Third down is when, as Williams pointed out, many of a running back's big plays come because of favorable matchups. But whenever the opportunities come, Williams will be grateful considering his knee injuries.
"I can come in and carry the load or share the load," he said. "I'm just blessed to be out there."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.