Josh Lucas was sitting in his Halas Hall office, engaged in the tedious process of going through film, when he was gobsmacked.
Play, rewind, play, rewind, play. With each click of the remote, his amazement grew.
Caleb Williams, in his second start for Oklahoma on Oct. 23, 2021, handed the ball off to running back Kennedy Brooks on fourth-and-1 with the Sooners, a 38 1/2-point favorite, clinging to a 28-23 lead at lowly Kansas. Less than six minutes remained and the ball was at midfield.
Brooks was stacked up by the Jayhawks, about to be dropped for a loss, when Williams ran up, ripped the ball from his teammate’s clutches, spun forward for a first down and propelled the Sooners to victory.
“I got up out of my seat,” said Lucas, then the Chicago Bears director of player personnel, “and I walked into (assistant director of player personnel) Champ Kelly’s office and I was like, ‘In three years, this guy will be the first pick in the draft.’
“To have the wherewithal, instincts and awareness to do what he did, combined with the throws he was making …”
Inserted into the Red River Rivalry against Texas two weeks earlier for a fourth-and-1 play, Williams shook a couple of Longhorns at the line of scrimmage and raced 66 yards for a touchdown, sparking Oklahoma’s comeback from a 28-7 deficit to a 55-48 win. The true freshman from Washington, D.C., quickly took over from Spencer Rattler and carried the Sooners to an 11-2 record.
The internet is packed with videos of dazzling throws from all platforms, off-schedule plays careening toward disaster that turn into highlights and big-armed shots downfield. Williams transferred to USC after his freshman season, following Sooners coach Lincoln Riley to Los Angeles, and threw 42 touchdown passes with only five interceptions and ran for another 10 scores en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
All of that made the first half last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium as jarring as an uppercut to the jaw. Had the Irish, who romped to a 48-20 victory while handing the Trojans (6-1) their first loss, discovered the kryptonite for Williams, who has been nicknamed Superman?
Williams was sacked on his first dropback. Two snaps later, with defensive end Javonte Jean-Baptiste bearing down, he backpedaled before lofting a pass to tight end Luke McRee that safety Xavier Watts intercepted.
On the second series, facing third-and-8, Williams threw back across the field to wide receiver Tahj Washington, netting only 5 yards. It appeared there was ample room to run for the first down.
Deep in his own territory in the second quarter, Williams tried connecting with wide receiver Dorian Singer, launching a ball into traffic for Watts’ second interception. The pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but Singer was double-covered.
Rolling left on the next possession, Williams was falling back when he forced another throw. Cornerback Benjamin Morrison picked it off.
Notre Dame turned all three interceptions into touchdowns, and the rout was on after a calamitous 30 minutes for Williams, who entered the prime-time showdown with 85 career touchdown passes versus 10 interceptions.
“I made mistakes that I usually don’t make,” Williams said afterward. “I’ve been in college for three years now and I don’t think I’ve ever had a season or a game or anything like that. So nights like that happen.
“You’ve got to get through it, you’ve got to keep fighting, you’ve got to be a leader. It starts at the head of the snake and I’ll be better.”
Bears general manager Ryan Poles and co-director of player personnel Jeff King watched it unfold from the press box, where three other GMs were present: Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Minnesota Vikings), Brandon Beane (Buffalo Bills) and Joe Schoen (New York Giants).
A rugged Notre Dame defense — certainly more physical than any the Trojans faced against San Jose State, Nevada, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Arizona — flustered Williams into 23-of-37 passing for 199 yards with one touchdown, the three interceptions and six sacks.
Williams was plagued by poor decision-making. He didn’t manage the pocket well when there was time. He was inclined to play off schedule, and more times than not it played in the defense’s favor — something Bears fans have seen too often with Justin Fields.
“There were team meetings where he was throwing some of his passes,” one scout said of Williams throwing into traffic.
Nonetheless, as the Bears prepare for the 2024 NFL draft — they would be selecting first and second based on the current standings — Williams looms as a tantalizing possibility for Poles and an organization that’s struggling to get it right 2 1/2 seasons into Fields’ tenure.
In a scouting process that encompasses everything — NFL teams are likely to chart every throw a quarterback makes in college and will plunge deep into personal background — what does Williams’ clunker in South Bend mean in the big picture? The Trojans’ last five regular-season games include meetings with No. 14 Utah, No. 5 Washington and No. 9 Oregon.
There hasn’t been a quarterback more consistently compared to Patrick Mahomes, the two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP the Bears passed on in the 2017 draft when they chose Mitch Trubisky. Was this a potential red flag?
“They all have those kind of games,” an AFC assistant GM said. “Josh Allen had one. Mahomes did. It didn’t move me a particular way. Didn’t change anything. Caleb is the No. 1 pick.”
“I hope that game turns 31 other teams off,” one national scout mused.
“No,” an NFC general manager said. “I have seen too much from him over the last two years.”
“They’re not really a good team,” another national scout said. “It’s just him. The game before (a 43-41 triple-overtime victory over Arizona), they almost lost. He put the team on his back. They struggled and he said, ‘I got this.’ To have that competitive fire and to be talented, that’s where the special matches up. I think he’s going to be great.”
“You have to look at it,” one high-level scout said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen batted balls and bad decisions, and they are going to be playing some other good teams coming up.”
Superlatives for Williams are through the roof. He has been called the kind of prospect that comes around once a decade. Some have said he’s the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. Others have dared to go all the way back to John Elway in 1983.
Sean Payton, in an appearance on Fox Sports’ “The Herd” last November, labeled Williams a “generational” talent. Now the coach of the 1-5 Denver Broncos, Payton’s team could be in the running for the No. 1 pick.
“At some point we’re going to move to a lottery system in the NFL because this is a player that possibly does that,” Payton said last fall. “Here you are in Weeks 14, 12, and clubs begin to lose to try and put themselves in that position. That’s not been a problem to date with our league as we know it.”
A college scouting director said debating where Williams stacks up in the last 10, 20 or 40(!) years is a talking point for media, not germane to the pre-draft process.
“But he is everything everyone says he is,” the scouting director said. “Once a decade or generational? Who the hell knows. They said the same stuff about five other dudes in the last 10 years.
“He is more mechanically clean than Mahomes was coming out. Mahomes would put the ball in harm’s way a lot. He was throwing the ball 60 times a game sometimes because he was pressed to put points on the board. He didn’t have a conscience when he was in college: ‘So what if I throw three picks? I’ve got to throw eight TDs to win.’”
The nitpicking — and it’s real even for such an uber-talented player — will focus on Williams’ ability to produce from the pocket. Can he be coached to play there more? USC lists him at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. He’s probably just a shade over 6 feet, but scouts love his lower-body build and strength.
“Really, really talented,” an AFC general manager said. “You can’t deny it. He can play in the pocket. He likes to get out, he likes to be off schedule. He’s dangerous with his legs. He probably takes too many sacks, but the line isn’t great. It’s a matter of what you’re doing. He’s not your typical pocket quarterback, but he can play in the pocket and he’s got a good arm. He likes the weight room.”
One national scout, when he first watched Williams in person last season, punctuated the first three words of his reaction: “This. Is. Mahomes.”
“He has that thing that the really good ones have that at any moment they can make a big play if you don’t play the defense perfectly,” an assistant GM said. “That’s one of those tough-to-measure qualities, but he’s got it and you see it time after time after time. There are some instances, just like last week, where it doesn’t work. But he just has that it, man. I don’t know what it is and I can’t put a value on it, but I know he’s got it.”
“He’s more advanced,” a national scout said. “It’s almost like he’s where Mahomes was after two years in the league.”
Former Miami Dolphins and Vikings GM Rick Spielman, who was the Bears director of pro personnel from 1997-99, found a positive takeaway in the loss to the Irish.
“Caleb is a unique talent,” Spielman said. “Arm talent, off-schedule throws, playmaking ability. I guess the negative is he can’t hold the ball as long as he can now, and that’s the thing that most of these college quarterbacks need to learn. The ball has got to be out. He has the luxury of being able to do that because he’s such a good athlete. But I think he can get through his progressions better than Justin Fields did when he came out.
“All the physical tools are there. For as bad as he played at Notre Dame, the one thing that told me about the kid’s competitiveness is that in the second half, he played like he played all year — made really good throws, made really good decisions — which showed me the maturity level after having such a crappy first half and not letting it affect him. That was a huge positive in my mind.”
So does Spielman see Mahomes when he watches Williams?
“I may be out of whack,” Spielman said, “but Andrew Luck. Andrew wasn’t as athletic, but he could move around, he was a very good thrower, he could do it from the pocket and outside. He did a lot of similar stuff as a thrower. That’s the first guy that popped into my head.”
Williams’ arrival last year restored luster to the USC program that had been mostly missing after coach Pete Carroll’s run (2001-09), which included seven consecutive seasons of 11 or more wins. Williams set most of the school’s major single-season passing records while leading the Trojans to an 11-3 record, and remember, it was his first year as a full-time starter after beginning behind Rattler at Oklahoma.
He made Trojans games at the LA Coliseum a place for A-list stars again. He walked the Hugo Boss runway at a fashion show in Miami. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a Caleb Williams bobblehead giveaway. He threw out a first pitch at a Washington Nationals game. He possesses the media savvy of a 10-year NFL veteran.
“It’s something and someone to get excited about,” said Mark Sanchez, the former Bears quarterback who compared the vibe around the USC program to his freshman season in 2005, when Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush led the Trojans to the national championship game. “The style of play adds to it. It kind of punctuates this whole Caleb Williams phenomenon. He’s not just your average kind of player that is going to concede a snap here or there to the defense. This dude is going to try to win every snap.
“It is a fun style of play, and as soon as the initial read or couple reads are done, that thing totally transforms and he becomes an artist out there. That’s added to this persona and figure that he’s created.”
Said former Bears quarterback Vince Evans, who was MVP of the 1977 Rose Bowl for USC: “He’s the face of the university, he’s the face of Los Angeles. He’s an exceptional talent. He’s a great leader, great motivator. Seems to be a solid role model. I don’t get very moved by many players, but he’s magical in some plays.”
In New York to accept the Heisman in December, Williams was humble in front of the three other finalists — C.J. Stroud, Max Duggan and Stetson Bennett — whose teams remained in national title contention.
“I may be standing up here today, but y’all get to go to the College Football Playoff,” Williams said. “Guess you can’t win them all.”
That competitive streak no doubt resonated with NFL teams.
Williams is just the second Heisman winner to be able to profit from NIL (name, image, likeness) money while in school, and On3.com estimates his valuation at $2.7 million. He has deals with Wendy’s, Beats by Dre, United Airlines and others.
An NFC GM scoffed at that figure — suggesting Williams is raking in significantly more.
The point is Williams could return to USC for his senior season in 2024 — something his father, Carl, didn’t rule out in a GQ profile published last month — and still be well-compensated. Carl lamented the way the draft is structured with the best player going to the worst team.
“He’s got two shots at the apple,” Carl said. “So if there’s not a good situation, the truth is, he can come back to school.”
NFL types don’t seem concerned Williams would bypass the draft. The real money elite quarterbacks are chasing is the windfall that comes with a second contract. Jalen Hurts’ second contract with the Philadelphia Eagles guaranteed him $180 million, Justin Herbert got $218 million guaranteed from the Los Angeles Chargers and Joe Burrow received $219 million from the Cincinnati Bengals. All three deals were signed since April.
If Williams enters the NFL in 2024, he would be eligible for a second contract in 2027. Guarantees for quarterbacks could approach $300 million by then. Returning to school could expose Williams to injury. The team with the No. 1 pick in 2025 is unlikely to be in a much better position than the one next April.
“Whoever has the No. 1 pick, he’s it by far,” another NFC GM said. “There’s no question he would have been the first pick this year.”