Rookie backup quarterback Clint Longley took over for the injured Roger Staubach on Thanksgiving day 46 years ago and on the strength of 203 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns, brought Dallas back from a 16-3 deficit for a 24-23 victory over its arch-rival, Washington.
A few things amaze me when I think about this moment. The first is that I was a four-year-old watching this game and I remember seeing it.
It further stuns me that I remember this span of my life between ages 3-10 more vividly than I remember the past 7 years.
I'm still bewildered that I was already a football fan. O.J. Simpson was the hottest athlete in sports after his 2,000-yard campaign the year before and everyone had a No.32 Bills jersey. We would have been more apt to believe in UFOs and the existence of a huge primate living in the forests of the U.S. than you telling us what Simpson would do nearly 20 years later.
The 1970s were weird. The following season, wide receiver Ken Burrough, who wore "00" was about to become one of my favorite players when he would earn a 1,000-yard season and average 20 yards per catch in the process. This is something Bob Henry and I have in common.
That "00" jersey and Burrow tracking down rainbows was as common a sight on my TV as the debut of Happy Days and the Six Million Dollar Man, Nixon resigning, and the build-up to the Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and Foreman.
As a Clevelander in 1974, there was also Ten Cent Beer Night, something I kept hearing about that summer from the older kids in my neighborhood...
Probably the reason why if Jene Bramel grew up closer to Cleveland, he wouldn't have been much of a baseball fan, either.
Now, as a 50-year-old football writer who is coming to grips with his age, it's also weird to imagine that there was probably a 50-year-old football writer in 1974 who remembered listening to games on the radio between the Providence Steam Rollers and Frankford Yellow Jackets or the Pottsville Maroons and Dayton Triangles.
Wildcat Wilson, Curly Oden, and Pop Williams were one helluva backfield for the Steam Rollers...
Listen, I'm trying to portray that pervasive sense of strangeness that permeated most kid's life in the 1970s so you have a shot of going with the flow during the final five 5-6 weeks of 2020. Especially, when I float the idea that TySon Williams could wind up an NFL Thanksgiving Legend by Thursday night.
With J.K. Dobbins and Mark Ingram on the COVID list this week, Baltimore is down to Gus Edwards and Justice Hill as its active-roster running backs. And with the Ravens conducting contact tracing in the wake of this news, it's entirely possible that the team will have to take action with players who were in close contact with Dobbins and Ingram and it means Edwards and Hill could also be rendered ineligible for the week.
Even if both are cleared to play, Hill is not a between-the-tackles runner and, against a physical Steelers defense, Baltimore will look to reinforcements for the game. Look no further than Williams, a UDFA signee whose career has already been an odd one before Thursday.
Williams was a four-star high school prospect who signed with North Carolina when the Tar Heels had a nationally-ranked team led by Mitchell Trubisky, Elijah Hood, and T.J. Logan. He left the program a year later, hoping for a larger opportunity with South Carolina but wound up in a carousel at a circus program that was also struggling at offensive line.
As an injury sub for (Cowboy reserve) Rico Dowdle, Williams impressed with his burst, footwork, and finishing power. However, the Gamecocks sent Williams to the bench when Dowdle got healthy and the staff floated stories to beat writers that Williams had ball security issues. Williams had one fumble during his two years playing in South Carolina so he either had multiple fumbles during practices, which was not reported, or the staff felt compelled to say something negative about one player to justify the change to another.
Last spring, Williams transferred to BYU as a graduate student. Immediately winning over his teammates and the staff, Williams earned the starting job and posted impressive work during his first month of the Cougars' 2019 season against the likes of USC< Tennessee, Utah, and Washington—teams with legit NFL athletes and quality prospects.
Williams tore his ACL during the Washington game and missed the rest of the year. With Williams' career path, the injury all but guaranteed that his best shot to earn a roster spot in the NFL would come via tryout as a UDFA.
Watch this RSP video short on Williams' game and you'll see why I labeled him a post-draft player of note. I told Rookie Scouting Portfolio subscribers that if Williams ACL rehab matched the projected nine-month timeline, he would be ready to compete in training camp.
The 6-0, 220-pound Williams, who according to BYU, ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at school workouts (think a solid time in the mid-4.5s if you're a cynic like I am about college times), signed with the Ravens at the end of August. The day after his arrival, Williams made news with an impressive full-contact scrimmage:
Ty'son Williams woke up Friday morning as a footbal player without a team who had never signed an NFL contract. He spent Saturday night carrying the ball around the field at the Baltimore Ravens' M&T Bank STadium, dashing through holes and hearing his name boom out of loudspeakers...
...about 34 hours after joining the roster, Williams served as the workhorse of the Ravens' scrimmage. With teh team cutious about overtaxing the running backs it'lll use during the regular eason, coaches let the newcomer spend more time in teh backfield than anyone else Saturday.
And Williams, an undrafted rookie, took advantage, regularly pounding the ball through the teeth of the Ravens' reserve defensive units and scoring the scrimmage's first touchdown on a carry up the middle.
"I respect him tremendously," veteran running back Mark Ingram said of Williams after the scrimmage. "Just to come off the street in tremendous shape, to know the playbook, to be able to function and operate in teh offensive series, and to make big plays, to make big runs, score a touchdown, that's the testament of a true pro."
The article correctly estimated that it was too late in the preseason for Williams to make the roster but he made enough of an impression to earn a spot on the practice squad.
Could history repeat itself? Forty-six years ago it was Nixon, an Oil Crisis with lines around gas stations, and Longley in a Dallas-Washington Thanksgiving Day game. Today, it's Trump, a flu pandemic with lines around grocery stores, and Williams in a Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving Day game.
Stranger things have happened. After all, there were people that literally thought there was a correlation between a wide receiver's height, weight, and his future NFL success. I figure, if they were serious about this, I can be tongue-in-cheek about Williams being the modern era's Clint Longley for coincidental parallels 46 years apart.
Seriously though, Williams is a talented back and one who would have earned a better opportunity earlier in the spring if not for the pandemic's restrictions and his ACL injury. He might have been drafted if not for the injury.
The Steelers allow the second-least fantasy points to its opponents' running backs in 2020. The only teams Pittsburgh has faced with quarterback-running back balance and quality offensive line play this year were the Ravens and Titans:
- New York Giants: Saquon has always been a boom-bust runner and it was magnified in this offense -- 15 attempts for 6 yards and 60 yards receiving.
- Denver: 19 carries for 70 yards for Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman adding 20 more.
- Houston: 13 carries for 23 yards and a score for David Johnson.
- Philadelphia: A short score and a long run for Miles Sanders sandwiched by nine other non-descript carries.
- Cleveland: Nick Chubb out and a banged-up offensive line limited Kareem Hunt and Dontrell Hilliard to 69 yards on 17 carries.
- Tennessee: Derrick Henry's 20 carries for 75 yards and a touchdown was a decent total but a below-average one for Henry.
- Baltimore: Gus Edwards earned 16-87-1 and J.K. Dobbins earned 15-113-0.
- Dallas: A banked up Ezekiel Elliott and makeshift offensive line with a third-string quarterback led to 27 touches for 108 yards between Elliott and Tony Pollard.
- Cincinnati: No Joe Mixon led to 100 yards on 20 touches by a threesome of options few of you even have on your roster.
- Jacksonville: James Robinson's 73 yards on 17 touches was solid for this matchup.
What we should gather from this list is that downhill runners with speed, vision, and receiving skill who aren't scat backs tend to perform reasonably well if the line play is healthy and productive and the quarterback earns the Steelers' respect.
Williams and the Ravens fit this mold if Edwards can't go.
It's a longshot. But regardless of whether Williams earns touches, much less gets called up to the active roster, he's a player worth monitoring over the next 2-3 years. If he doesn't earn a roster spot in Baltimore, he'll get a better shot elsewhere in a post-pandemic NFL camp.
And it would be fitting during this surreal year, that Williams earns and makes the most of a surreal opportunity.