To invoke military parlance, San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver Kyle Williams has gone officially AWOL.
Even though he had never fully emerged as an NFL player through his first four seasons, Williams was seemingly primed for a breakout campaign in 2013.
Injuries were no longer a concern. He and Colin Kaepernick would forge a big-play connection like the matchup with the Chicago Bears showed in 2012.
He would finally attain his status as bona fide No. 2 wideout for the 49ers in a pass-friendly league.
But ostensible capabilities don’t always transform into tangible realities. I’ll be the first to admit it.
Let’s briefly run down a timeline of Williams’ progress—both mentally and physically—and subsequent regression from the start of the year until now.
January 15: Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports that Williams remains in positive spirits following ACL surgery and is preparing himself for the long haul.
The good thing is we don't have to rush anything…Six months will put me in May or June, so that gives us all kinds of time to get it ready, get it strengthened, and get back to normal—maybe even better than normal.
His head was in the right place—good to know.
July 25: The 49ers officially activate Williams from the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list. He is an all-go for training camp.
Okay, so his head and body are in the right place—even better.
July 27: I predict that KW will secure a starting role following training camp. Well, he does manage to accomplish that.
August 4: After recovering from an injury to his hamstring, Williams makes one of many highlight-reel catches in camp, as reported by Maiocco. He appears consistently explosive in the passing game.
September 3: The team releases its first unofficial depth chart for the 2013 season, via CSN Bay Area. Despite not playing in the preseason for precautionary reasons, Williams’ name pops off the screen as the starting wideout opposite Anquan Boldin.
He later says confidently to 49ers insider Maiocco that he’ll “take on the responsibilities as the No. 2.” Shortly thereafter, rookie receiver Quinton Patton concurs and praises Williams for his speed, quickness and route-running ability.
Fans surely can’t wait to witness those skills on the gridiron.
October 1: Williams has compiled a staggering nine receptions for 87 yards and zero touchdowns through San Francisco’s opening four games. Worse yet, head coach Jim Harbaugh benches him in favor of the first-year Patton in Week 4 against the St. Louis Rams.
Apparently “those skills” are more of the phantom variety.
October 24: Great Scott!—A supporting receiver for the 49ers catches a touchdown pass.
Alas, it isn’t Kyle Williams. And it doesn’t even occur in a regular-season game.
The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows reports that Mario Manningham hauls in a “long, practice-field touchdown pass,” which later fuels “an impromptu party in the end zone.”
In what certainly comes across as pure acquiescent melancholy, Barrows notes the following:
No wideout other than Anquan Boldin has caught a touchdown for them this season. The team's second-leading pass catcher at the position, Kyle Williams, ranks 103rd in the league among wideouts in receiving yards.
Things are getting downright brutal for the once-promising Williams.
October 27: The red and gold dominate the nauseatingly bad Jacksonville Jaguars 42-10 in London. Williams, unfortunately, created the one glaring source of negativity.
Williams' struggles meanwhile, seemed to symbolize the surging 49ers' only weaknesses—little production by the No. 2 wide receiver and a lackluster return game. He flubbed both a punt and a kickoff in the first half, though he didn't lose either. He also allowed his momentum to carry him out of bounds at the 3-yard line following a kick return…He also had two passes glance off his hands…[and] finished the game with one carry for 10 yards and one catch for seven yards.
Not producing touchdowns in the passing game and leading the NFL in fair catches (20) on punt returns are certainly problematic.
But dropping passes and fumbling return opportunities outright are another matter entirely.
It’s what the statisticians at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) refer to as negative-5.1, or the 106th-rated receiver (out of 110) that catches only 44 percent of the passes thrown his way. And who has all of 11 receptions for 108 yards through eight games.
With purposeful italics at our disposal, “What happened to Kyle Williams?”
It seems, at this point, that some deep-rooted psychological implications are in play.
Williams received every conceivable opportunity this season to emerge—to evolve—into a productive complementary wideout.
He was the only healthy receiver with knowledge of the offense when the year began. Michael Crabtree and Manningham were out, Patton was an untested rookie and A.J. Jenkins went away to Kansas City.
Kaepernick needed a reliable target outside of Boldin and Vernon Davis. Williams was in a perfect position to assume that role.
He just never did.
Whatever Williams accomplished leading up to this season must be left in the past.
His physical gifts—strong hands, sub-4.4 speed, fluid athleticism—and pro-level route running cannot account for what is happening now. Neither can his commitment to preparation and cerebral approach to the game.
Or can they?
If Williams is an NFL-caliber wideout, physically speaking, couldn’t lost confidence or overthinking the game serve as mental barriers to his producing on the gridiron?
This unfortunately is all a matter of speculation. No one can presume to know what’s going on in Williams’ head—obviously.
As it stands, Manningham will suit up against the Carolina Panthers, with Crabtree and Patton returning in a few weeks. Issues with the wide receiver depth chart will no longer plague the 49ers.
That means us outsiders can only scratch our heads as Williams falls by the wayside.
Obscurity over stardom—unrealized potential sure is a nasty thing in professional sports.
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