As he was gracing a sloppy, sluggish game with a succession of fabulous catches Sunday, Seahawks wide receiver Mike Williams became a go-to target for his quarterback – and a get-into-his head target for frustrated Arizona defensive backs.
Whenever Williams reached out to snag a pass behind his shoulder, over his head or at his shoelaces, a momentary trash-talk exchange seemed to follow.
That’s what it looked like, anyway. But Williams insisted the banter was good-natured.
“They just told me things like, ‘Man, you’re big,” said Williams, who at 6-feet-5 and 230 pounds gives the Seahawks an even more imposing physical presence at wideout than 6-3, 218, four-time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald provides the Cardinals.
There was a time, as recently as two years ago, when Williams had reason to regard any reference to his size as an insult. The 10th overall selection of the 2005 draft had ballooned to 270 pounds, forcing the Titans to draw the same conclusion made by the Lions and Raiders: a once-gifted athlete who blew off a promising pro career because he had no discipline.
Williams had so thoroughly botched his NFL opportunity that when Pete Carroll signed him to a contract after a tryout last April, Seahawks fans figured the coach was doing another favor for one of the seven former USC pupils extended an offseason roster spot.
Six months later, Carroll, whose team on Sunday improved to 4-2 with a 22-10 victory over the two-time defending NFC West champs, is a front-running candidate for NFL Coach of the Year – thanks in part to the rejuvenation of Williams, the early favorite for Comeback Player of the Year.
Last week at Chicago, where he caught 10 passes for 123 yards, Williams showed his potential as the most reliable receiver among a group – essentially overhauled from 2009 – that had found quarterback Matt Hasselbeck struggling to develop timing and trust with.
If Williams revealed sure hands during that breakout effort against the Bears, he displayed a more rare nuance against the Cardinals: acrobatic artistry.
“He made some grabs that very few guys will make,” Carroll said. “The DBs were hanging all over him, but he wouldn’t let them get to the football. He had about four catches today that I thought were marvelous plays.”
And yet, as marvelous as his work was at Qwest Field, Williams didn’t do anything the coach hasn’t seen before. This is the guy, remember, who at USC set Pacific-10 Conference freshman records with 81 catches and 1,265 yards in 2002 – and then stretched those crazy numbers to 95 catches and 1,314 yards in 2003.
Williams sat out 2004 in a misbegotten attempt to jump to the NFL after his sophomore season, and when he finally was eligible for the league, his appetite for fast-food restaurants during the day and fast-lane clubs at night got him labeled as a bust in Detroit and then a failed reclamation project in Tennessee.
Carroll points out that the Mike Williams who reported to Seattle for a tryout was not the Mike Williams ridiculed for eating his way out of the NFL.
“I saw him at 230 pounds, I didn’t see him at whatever else he was,” said Carroll. “I saw him coming off of six or seven months of working in the regimen that got him raw and physically right and ready to take on anything.
“We are the beneficiaries of Mike kind of changing his world around. I don’t think too many guys were thinking Mike was going to make a comeback, and I have to tell you the truth, I didn’t know if he was, either. But once he showed us, we said, ‘Shoot, this is kind of what we always thought he could be, so let’s just wait and see what happens.’ ”
While Williams is reluctant to share details of his comeback – “I don’t think about it,” he said, “because it feels like such long time ago” – Hasselbeck is equally reluctant to elaborate on the chemistry he has achieved with his No. 1 receiver.
“He’s always at the facility; he’s a smart player and a really hard worker,” Hasselbeck said after connecting with Williams for 11 completions worth 87 yards and a touchdown. “He’s probably really tired today, but he stayed in there and I don’t want to talk too much about it.”
Hasselbeck smiled as he said that, but nobody in the room doubted his sincerity. It’s as if he’s wary of jinxing the most unanticipated plot twist of the Seahawks’ surprising season.
Over the three years before disappearing from the football world in 2008, Williams caught 44 passes for 539 and two touchdowns. In six games with Seattle, Williams has caught 32 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s funny how things change in the time frame that they change,” the 26-year old said of his return from obscurity. “I’m blessed and I’m just trying to make the most of my situation and my opportunity. I give it up for these guys in this locker room. Whatever happens, I’m happy.”
Next stop on the Mike Williams Comeback Tour: Oakland, where the Seahawks will face a Raiders team fresh off a 59-14 demolition of Denver.
“This is a ‘What have you done lately?’ league,” said Williams. “And lately is Oakland.”