Two years after one of the most acrimonious exits the CFL has ever seen, former Hamilton Tiger-Cats wide receiver/kick returner Chris Williams is back in the league, but with the Ottawa Redblacks instead of his old team. Williams shone for the Ticats in 2011 (where he was named the CFL's outstanding rookie) and 2012 (where he was named a league all-star as a returner and a divisional all-star as a receiver), but got into a contract dispute with them before 2013, accusing the team of violating the collective bargaining agreement by not offering him a two-year contract and negotiating with an unregistered agent. That led to a long and protracted legal dispute, which eventually ended with an October 3 settlement that led to Williams signing in the NFL the next day. He's been south of the border since, with stints with the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, and he had further NFL workouts earlier this month, so it's somewhat unexpected to see him back in the CFL. Will Williams' return to Canada end better than his first stint in the league?
It's important to keep in mind that while many Tiger-Cats' fans will certainly bear some animosity towards Williams for his manner of departure, from a league-wide perspective, he wasn't really in the wrong. When Williams held out and took his case to arbitration, arbitrator agreed that the Ticats had violated the CBA (even if he didn't find that violation was significant enough to void Williams' contract). The arbitrator's decision was so odd, and had such potential league-wide implications for other players (if CFL teams don't have to follow the CBA when signing players, they could potentially get away with a lot) that the CFLPA became heavily involved and helped Williams appeal for judicial review. That move paid off, with Ontario judge Gladys I. Pardu quashing the arbitrator's decision in August (oddly enough, over the language used for club options rather than over Williams' initial complaints); the league looked to appeal further, but opted to settle in October instead.
Williams' case was expensive for the CFLPA (and it may have played a role in the 2013 billing controversy that was part of the union parting ways with lawyer Ed Molstad this week), but it was a battle worth fighting for players. At the very least, it provided teams with strong incentive to stick more closely to the CBA in contract negotiations to avoid another Williams debacle. Williams' situation also may have played a role in the 2014 CBA negotiations, which wound up decreasing the minimum contract for veteran players from two years to one (one of the few significant gains the players made in that bargaining agreement). The CFL has slowly started to realize that it can't hold players against their will, and that some like Williams will be happy to sit out, not making the CFL minimum of $51,000 but not risking injury that could jeopardize their chances of a NFL payday (a minimum of $435,000 for active-roster players in 2015). Heck, as the Steven Lumbala case shows, there are even players who can find more lucrative work outside the sports realm. The CFL is far from the only option out there for players, and it needs to be aware of that; Williams' situation serves as a case in point.
One-year contracts are actually a win for the CFL on a few fronts. They allow the league to be a more compelling option for players looking to get to the NFL, and only a small fraction of those players will ever accomplish that; the majority of them are likely to stay in Canada and sign further CFL deals. Thus, they're a key part of attracting talent to this league. The move to allow one-year contracts definitely wasn't just about Williams' case, but his contract dispute helped show how shorter contracts that work for both the player and the team can be more beneficial than trying to lock a player up for a longer period than the player wants. We don't know how long Williams has signed for, or how much (but it could be a decent amount, as the Redblacks are still believed to have cap room), but it seems likely he got a much better deal this time around than he did with that three-year minimum salary contract in Hamilton.
What's this move going to mean for the Redblacks on the field? Well, if Williams still has the speed, agility and hands he showed in his first CFL stint, he might be a massive addition. He posted 70 receptions for 1,064 yards and six touchdowns in 2011 and 83 for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012 (when his quarterback was Henry Burris, who he's reuniting with in Ottawa). He also was incredible on punt returns in 2012, recording 1,117 return yards and five touchdowns on 78 punts. Williams hasn't played much in the last few years, and he'll have to readjust to the CFL, but at just 27, he may have several good years ahead. He will need to avoid channelling Leon Lett any further, though.
Still, reuniting Williams with Burris and adding him to an impressive receiving corps that now also includes Maurice Price, Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli could make for some offensive fireworks. Williams can make great plays on special teams too, and he's always fun to watch on punt returns. Hamilton fans in particular may not be happy about seeing Williams back in the CFL with a division rival, but for Ottawa fans and those of us neutrals who like watching explosive players, Williams' return to the league seems like great news.