From 2005's top rookie to 2006 sophomore jinx

By Rick Stroud
Published November 5, 2006

TAMPA - Jon Gruden always has been too quick to give up on the running game. It's one of his few flaws as a play-caller. But you have to wonder if he isn't also giving up a bit on Cadillac Williams.

Furthermore, can you really blame him?

Williams ran like Walter Payton in his first three NFL games, setting a league record with 434 yards on his way to winning rookie of the year honors. Gruden wasn't shy about using him then and would've let him run to get the mail if he could've.

But this season, the Bucs and Williams have been notoriously slow starters.

Last week, Williams had 4 yards on five carries in the first half, including mishandling a pitch from quarterback Bruce Gradkowski that resulted in a fumble, which the Giants then converted into a touchdown.

Hardly a great reason for Gru-den to keep feeding him the football.

That said, it's not as if Cadillac is running behind the five blocks of granite. And opponents tend to load up on the run when facing a rookie quarterback.

But if Williams wants the ball, he is going to have to do something early in games to deserve it.

If you take a running back with the fifth overall pick, he had better be an elite player. Williams showed signs of that last season, rushing for 1,178 yards in 14 games.

But even Gruden doesn't believe he's there yet.

"This guy absolutely has got a lot to see yet before you can say he's realized his true potential," Gruden said. "He's taking the bull by the horns here, and I see him really improving in the pass protection. And not far away will be his time to be an ... every-down back."

For Williams to become a complete back, he has to improve as a receiver. He already has mishandled too many passes this season, and his hands are suspect. Gruden believes he has made strides in that area.

"Nobody is really playing every single snap anymore. But you'll see him more and more involved as a receiver on third down," Gruden sad. "Right now, we're blessed to have Michael Pittman, who's not good, but who's phenomenal at it.

"To keep our young guy fresh, we have the luxury right now to take a burden off him. But there will be a time in the future you'll see Carnell as a guy featured in the passing game."

Despite Williams' slow starts, Gruden has no choice but to re-commit to building the offense around his talented running back.

And Cadillac needs to make something happen. Quickly.

"We've got to build it around somebody," Gruden said. "We'd like to find the right quarterback. We'd like to get the right side of the line to be something we can build the team around.

"We think (tight end) Alex Smith is going to be a building block. But you've got to have a hell of a back. We feel like we've got some pieces in place, and Carnell is certainly a guy we consider great. We don't think what he's done this year or last year was a fluke."

APB ON A-TRAIN: If Mike Al-stott knew he would be phased out of the Bucs offense so quickly, you've got to believe he would have retired after last season.

The six-time Pro Bowl fullback has eight carries for 17 yards and one touchdown this season. As a receiver, he has been used slightly more, with 13 receptions for 43 yards.

But in the past three games, Alstott hasn't had a single rushing attempt. Last week against the Giants, he was used exclusively as a blocker.

The reason is obvious. Gruden knows Alstott is likely playing his final season, and he believes Williams is a better short-yardage and goal-line back at this point of his career.

Last week, facing third and 1 and fourth and 1, Alstott's number was not called.

It's funny, but only a year ago, this was the same guy who scored two touchdowns and a last-minute two-point conversion against the Redskins.

Alstott is being loyal to the end. But you know it hurts. He deserves better. If not, why bother to bring him back this season at all?

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.