ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Joe Lombardi expected exactly the tough yards and gritty offensive identity that running back Javonte Williams has provided the Denver Broncos this season — only he envisioned it happening in 2024.
The Broncos offensive coordinator arrived in Denver this spring along with new coach Sean Payton and the two of them studied the tantalizing film of Williams' rookie year in 2021 before his second season was cut short by a complex right knee injury.
Soon, they began to see that same player on the field as Williams embarked on his comeback. Still, Lombardi said he was cautioned not to get his hopes up.
“They're like, ‘Look, you can’t count on a guy who's had this injury no matter how well he's rehabbing, no matter how hard he's working. History tells you that it's a two-year injury,'" Lombardi said. “And he's defied that.”
Williams was selected as the team's Ed Block Courage Award winner at a team meeting on Thursday.
“He's even better on Sunday than what you see in practice,” Lombardi said. “People told us that. They said, ‘Look, don’t judge him by what you're seeing here in training camp. You've got to be playing real football to really appreciate who this guy is.'"
Lombardi said he realized in August that he wouldn't have to wait a year for Williams to lead Denver's rushing attack.
“In preseason he got in there and you could feel him getting those extra yards on those run gains when people were actually tackling him,” Lombardi said. “And you kind of realized we had a chance of getting what we saw on film from the year before.”
Williams, who has 739 scrimmage yards and a pair of touchdowns so far, said he had that same realization during a joint practice with the Rams ahead of their exhibition finale.
“It was the first time that I took my brace off and was running free and so it felt pretty good then as the season was going along it just got stronger and stronger," Williams said, adding, "I don't even think about it no more.”
With Williams leading the way, the Broncos (6-6), who visit the Chargers (5-7) on Sunday, began to rely more and more on their ground game about the time they embarked on a five-game winning streak that was snapped at Houston last weekend.
Williams was among the hottest names in fantasy football heading into his second NFL season in 2022 after a brilliant rookie year in which he scored seven touchdowns and was among the league’s best backs at breaking tackles.
In Week 4 at Las Vegas, however, the 2021 second-round pick out of North Carolina took a toss from Russell Wilson and was dropped for a 1-yard loss by Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby, who jumped on his back just as Williams planted his right leg.
Williams’ knee buckled under the weight of Crosby’s 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame, tearing his ACL, LCL and posterolateral corner, a complex area of tendons and ligaments around the outside of the knee.
Williams was told his road back would be a long one but in an interview with The Associated Press late last season, he insisted, “I expect to be back by training camp" and pledged to change his game if he could no longer be the same running back who led the nation in broken tackles his last year in college.
Williams ended up not having to change anything about his running style.
“I'm just running the ball the same way that I always did, trying to make people miss and breaking tackles,” he said. “That's a blessing because a lot of people said it would linger on two or three years. But I feel like it's something that I've already gotten past and now I'm just looking forward.”
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Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press