Allen Park — You wouldn’t know it now, but as a youngster, Jamaal Williams’ running style was predicated on speed. He was more lightning than the thunder role he currently occupies in the Detroit Lions’ backfield.
It was an injury — a broken ankle before his freshman season of high school — that changed the course of Williams’ athletic trajectory. As he recovered, he realized he wasn’t nearly as fast as he was before being hurt. No longer able to easily outrun his peers, he felt need a new identity, so he started lifting weights and bulking up.
But beyond adding strength and power, Williams made a commitment to be someone who could be relied upon to get the job done, to never give his coaches a reason to take him off the field.
A decade later, that reliability continues to be one of Williams’ defining traits. From his steady durability, to consistently gaining what is required in short-yardage situations, Williams has been a solid NFL player during his five-year career. But nothing has defined his reliability more than his ability to hold on to the ball.
Last Sunday, for the first time in his career, Williams fumbled. It came on his 752nd career touch.
“Coaches knew whenever they put me in, I’m going to get the job done. They know they can trust me and my favorite thing was I just never fumbled. That’s because I used to run with two hands on the ball for a while.
“… High and tight and it’s all effort,” Williams said. “Everybody wants to do all these jukey jukes, look flashy, have the ball all over up here, back there, down here. But it’s not that impressive if you can’t keep the ball secure while making those moves. It doesn’t make sense for you to do all these specular moves if the ball is going to end up on the ground. It does nothing for me.”
While historical data is limited, Williams’ 602 carries without a fumble to start a career is the longest such streak in more than a decade (although Phillip Lindsay and Saquon Barkley both have active streaks nearing the mark). Additionally, Williams’ stretch of more than 750 touches was the longest by a running back since Steven Jackson.
Coincidentally, as a young Rams fan, Jackson was a player Williams idolized coming up.
“I’m just grateful to be in the same conversation as Steven Jackson,” Williams said. “That’s a beast right there. He was a dude.”
Last Sunday, Williams’ stretch without a fumble came to an end early in the third quarter. On the opening play of a Lions’ drive, Williams ran into traffic behind the line of scrimmage. While searching for a hole, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, a former teammate in Green Bay, shed his block on the perimeter and was able to deliver a big hit to the unexpecting Williams, knocking the ball free.
The bitter pill was easier to swallow since the loose ball was recovered by teammate Evan Brown. And more importantly than anything else, the Lions went on to win the game.
Williams, known for his upbeat attitude and playful demeanor, so much so that he was recognized by the team as their Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award nominee this week, is able to laugh the moment off, insisting there’s no way Breeland makes that play if Williams had seen him coming.
“That’s my boy, Breeland,” Williams said. “Congratulations, you got me when I wasn’t looking. Sneaky stuff.”
One thing Williams won’t do is allow the rare blunder to rattle his confidence. He’s certainty not taking part in the football cliché of carrying a football with him everywhere he goes this week.
“That let’s people know that you’re still scared and you think you’re going to do it again,” Williams said. “It’s a mentality that you’re not going to give the ball up, no matter what.”
No, Williams has moved on to his next fumble-less streak, which stands at seven touches. He couldn’t help but crack a big smile when he said, “I can feel myself getting back there. I got 750-plus more in me, easy.”
Unfortunately, building upon it will be put on hold for at least a week. Williams landed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Friday afternoon, which will sideline him for Sunday’s game against Denver.
But once he returns, if defenders want to mistake his recent misstep as weakness, he welcomes them to waste their time.
“I’m just going to run the same way I always run, low, aggressive and powerful,” Williams said. “It’s very hard for you to even think about getting the ball. If you’re going for the ball from me, then I guess you just want me to score. You ain’t going to get it. Go for the ball if you want. Please go for the ball and let me run. I’d love that.”