Cadillac faces hard days

Bucs back stares at long, challenging road in bid to return from knee injury.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published October 4, 2007

TAMPA - Cadillac Williams sat in a row by himself, covered with a blanket and staring into space Sunday during the charter flight home from Charlotte, N.C.

Running backs coach Art Valero passed Williams and could tell he didn't want to talk. It was too soon after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee, an injury that ended his season and threatens his career.

So Valero took a seat four rows behind Williams and started sending him text messages.

"He's just disappointed and upset. I knew he didn't want to talk," Valero recounted Wednesday. "... He would text me back. I said, 'I'm not going to let you go down. You're coming back better than ever.'"

Williams had successful surgery Tuesday performed by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. He is staying at the home of his mother, Sherry, near Attalla, Ala., for the next two weeks and was on his feet Wednesday.

But the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2005 faces a long and painful rehabilitation from an injury that has ended some NFL careers and reduced others dramatically.

"As soon as they said it was the patellar tendon, we all knew it would be a long road back," Bucs pro personnel executive Doug Williams said. "With the nature of this injury, you're talking about a long rehab.

"I think it more or less depends on the next six months. You're talking another year at this time before he's able to run around. I would think the chances of him coming to training camp next year are pretty slim."

When the tendon ruptures, the patella - or kneecap - rolls up like a window shade to the thigh and a patient is unable to straighten his leg without surgery. A large incision is made in the front of the knee and the site of the rupture is identified. The tendon ends are sewn together and a cast or brace protects the repair, usually for a minimum of six weeks.

"The first part of rehab is geared toward healing," said Dr. Michael J. Hulstyn, assistant professor of sports medicine at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Then you slowly progress to improving the range of motion, restoring the basic strength and eventually speed and motion.

"If it's repaired well and rehabbed properly, he may be back doing the things he used to do sometime next year. But if it doesn't heal well, some people have had problems."

Former Bucs and Raiders running back Charlie Garner tore his patellar tendon in 2004 and it ended his career. Running back Dwayne Wright missed nearly two years at Fresno State but last season rushed for 1,462 yards, 11 touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards a carry before being drafted in the fourth round by the Bills.

The Bucs will re-evaluate Williams before the draft in April to determine whether they want to spend a high choice on a feature running back.

Like most in the organization, coach Jon Gruden is looking at the glass half full.

"Everybody's talking about that. I think anytime you have a serious injury there are going to be people who question how serious it was and if you can come back from it," Gruden said. "Carnell's going to come back from this. He had surgery ... and it was a success. Now it's a matter of the injury healing properly and then beginning what will be a grueling rehab procedure. Knowing him, he'll be back at full strength and ready to roll here before long."

The timing was cruel. Williams, 25, had battled back from bruised ribs in the season-opening loss at Seattle. He had overcome the embarrassment of being benched Sept. 23 against the Rams after his second fumble of the season. Valero said Williams had his best week of practice and they had talked about him rushing for nothing less than 130 yards at Carolina.

Then came the fateful 18-yard, first-quarter run. Trying to cut back, his right leg slipped on the turf and was bent underneath him just as he was hit by safety Chris Harris.

"I said to him, 'I just want you to know, it's entirely up to you,'" Valero said. "'You have the support group around you that wants nothing but the best for you. You just have to ask.'

"If I were a betting guy, I'd put my money on 24."

Times staff writers Joanne Korth and Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report. Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.