Mike Williams' Emergence a Silver Lining in Otherwise Disappointing Chargers Season
Jason B. Hirschhorn
CARSON, Calif. -- By any objective measure, the Los Angeles Chargers' 2019 season has proven to be a disappointment. The team, which came off a 12-4 campaign and finished just one win short of the AFC Championship Game, entered the year with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. However, that optimism quickly fizzled out, replaced by feelings of frustration and a losing record.
But while the Chargers didn't deliver on their promise in 2019, one of their young wide receivers finally realized his.
Mike Williams has dealt with many obstacles during his nearly three years in Los Angeles. The former No. 7 overall pick struggled mightily as a rookie, recording just 95 receiving yards while battling knee and back injuries that sidelined him six games and limited him in several others. Williams began to turn the corner as an NFL sophomore, hauling in 10 touchdowns and helping the Chargers to their first playoff appearance since 2013.
Still, nothing could have prepared the Chargers for Williams' performance in 2019. Despite questions about his vertical speed coming out of Clemson, Williams leads the league in yards per catch among qualifiers (20.7). Williams' big-play prowess has become a weekly staple, with quarterback Philip Rivers throwing deep in his direction several times a game regardless of coverage. The 25-year-old wideout proved his mettle again Sunday, going over the top of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mike Hughes for a clutch 39-yard reception that set up Los Angeles near the red zone. Though a hard act to top, Williams came close midway through the second quarter, abusing Hughes once again to haul in the go-ahead touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
"The contested catches that he makes are awesome," Rivers says. "Mike's doing an unbelievable job. I'm not saying this to get any credit on these throws, but they're intentionally thrown where they're thrown because of the player that he is.
"You give a guy like that a chance and you put it in a place where you think is a good spot and then he makes it right."
Though Williams will almost certainly fall short of last year's touchdown total, he appears well on his way to setting career highs in most of the other major receiving categories. At his current pace, Williams will finish the year with around 51 catches for 1,050 yards. He could lose 5 yards off his per-catch average and still finish ahead of his previous top mark (15.4 in 2018). While Williams hasn't commanded many headlines or the national spotlight since leaving college, he has emerged as a key part of the Chargers' core moving forward.
But mere statistics don't tell the full story of Williams' season. The wideout has sacrificed his body on a weekly basis, absorbing huge blows on his contested catches that often force him off the field and onto the training table. Still, Williams rarely misses much time, usually returning no later than the following series. That trend continued Sunday when he twice aggravated his knee injury and appeared in significant pain on the sideline. Yet, as always, Williams returned to action as soon as the medical staff cleared him.
"It's been like that kind of the whole season," Williams says. "You got to get through it. It's football. It's a tough game, so you got to play through."
Williams compares this season to his final year at Clemson when he battled through a lingering hamstring issue. "I was still making plays, so I was used to it," he says. Despite the injury, Williams hauled in 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns, making him a coveted receiver in the NFL draft the following April.
Even so, it seems Williams has played through more pain this season for the Chargers. Perhaps the team should force him to rest in order to protect his future, but that approach doesn't carry much water with a coaching staff that wants to win even without a playoff berth on the line. "Everything in the National Football League is hurt right now," head coach Anthony Lynn explains, "but Mike is playing through it."
For better or worse, Williams shares that sentiment. He wants to continue battling the defenses and his injuries in equal measure and make sure his coaches know he won't stop pushing, even without anything to play for besides pride.
"We just have to finish strong," Williams says. That's the main thing. We'll see who loves the game and who likes it. People who love it are going to keep fighting."
Without question, Williams loves the game.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH