Trent Williams wasn’t defiant. He wasn’t apologetic. He was just available, finally, after a complicated and murky four-game suspension. Befitting a story that may never find resolution, let alone absolute truth, Williams and his reputation wandered back into a gray and uncertain world Wednesday afternoon.
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He’s free, sort of, not from speculation and criticism, but the Washington Redskins left tackle can play football again. For that, Williams is grateful. Still, he returns as a diminished team leader, unable to defend himself by using vague statements and hinting at details that may never surface. Williams had spent seven NFL seasons trying to build his character, trying to show you that he has turned immaturity into trustworthiness, trying to live up to the franchise-player designation that his talent and paycheck demand. But a second drug suspension ruined the progress. And Williams can’t explain why.
He wants to, he says. He really does. But he can’t.
His reputation has stalled in the unknown.
“That was the hardest part to deal with, the reputation part of it,” Williams said. “It’s something that I had spent a long time building up, and to have it questioned over something that was iffy, to say the most, it was tough to deal with.”
Here’s what we know, according to people with knowledge of the situation: Since multiple violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy triggered a four-game suspension in 2011, Williams had his record cleared after years of clean tests. Recently, he has violated the rules of the policy, but he disputes the number of infractions, which includes questioning the manner in which the NFL Players Association handled a test he missed while vacationing in Africa.
The policy includes escalating penalties for repeated positive marijuana tests. After a first positive, the player is put in a treatment program and tested more often. After that, penalties include a two-game fine, a four-game fine and a four-game suspension.
Basically, Williams doesn’t deny marijuana use, which he is believed to use for pain management, which opens a Pandora’s box that sports leagues need to address more thoughtfully in the future. But Williams doesn’t believe he had enough infractions to warrant a suspension, and he blames the NFLPA for procedural mishaps that pushed him to the brink of suspension without his knowledge.
It’s far more complicated than Williams choosing fun and weed over his team. But Williams isn’t blameless, and regardless of his intent, his actions hurt the team. Washington went 2-2 without Williams, winning the first two games before falling apart the past two weeks. And with the offensive line struggling against Arizona’s pressure and diverse defensive front Sunday, Williams’s absence was felt. In a 31-23 loss, you can argue that his presence might have made a difference.
The team won’t blame him. The players, coaches and front office have been amazingly supportive in that way. But in the public, Williams has been criticized. He has felt it and he knows he can’t easily combat it. He only has one weapon: to make the most of the remaining games. To do his part to elevate Washington to the playoffs for the second straight season.
“I can’t really discuss what’s going to take place and what’s the plan,” Williams said when asked about possible legal action. “I’ll revisit it at the end of the season. I just want to get these four games out of the way and try to make this playoff push.”
If you know Williams, it’s hard not to be sympathetic. He’s genuine and accountable. He has embraced being a leader, and the entire offensive line is better for it. But it’s possible to be sympathetic and stern moving forward.
One tricky situation doesn’t mean that Williams has regressed to ways he previously described “irresponsible” earlier in his career. It is, however, proof that he has an issue to manage, even if it is mostly for pain. And with Williams only in the first year of a $66 million contract extension, Washington can’t afford any more missteps from its star tackle.
Two suspensions, two strikes. It’s on Williams to ensure there isn’t a third.
“He’s one of our best players on the football team,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “So it’s great to have him back. He’s in great shape and ready to roll.”
If there is a next time, the welcome shouldn’t be as warm. Williams can’t become so upset over being wronged that he forgets an important point: He has to do a better job of controlling his fate. Right now, the frustration won’t let him see that.
“Anger,” Williams said, describing his feelings. “A lot of anger, a lot of disappointment. Time heals everything.”
Where’s the anger directed?
“The people I’m disappointed in, they know,” Williams said. “I’m really not commenting on it right now. I’ll deal with it later. It’s sticky, man. It’s sticky.”
The good news is that, at 6-5-1 entering Sunday’s game at Philadelphia, Washington is still in position to make the postseason. It’s seventh in the NFC, a half game behind Tampa Bay for the sixth and final playoff spot. Williams can make an impact with his talent and his health. It’s almost as if Washington acquired a Pro Bowl tackle for the final month.
“It’s the freshest I’ll ever be in a Week 14,” Williams said.
He laughed at the thought. And then his lips returned to being a straight line. He would much rather be grinding through the season like his teammates. Since his 2011 suspension, Williams had made a point to play through as much pain as he could, hoping to make amends for missing those four games. He had rebuilt his reputation one painful step at a time. And now he must start over, even though he sees himself as the same, mature person.
“Yeah, it’s night and day,” Williams said, comparing the suspensions. “It’s different circumstances. It’s totally different. It doesn’t really compare in my mind. So it really was hard to pull from that experience.”
Williams tugged at his Redskins hat, still uncomfortable. In a few minutes, the media crowd would disperse, and he would be free to relax at his locker.
“I had a hard time restraining myself at practice today,” Williams admitted. “I just had so much energy and enthusiasm to get out.”
It’s a good thing his tank is full. He can’t make up for this suspension. He can’t really explain it, either.
But at least there’s the future, uncertain as it may seem.