Marcus Williams enjoyed his 21st birthday a few months ago. He was part of a New Orleans Saints draft class that has been hailed as one of the best in recent memory, at least as far as immediate returns were concerned, and yet few outside the Crescent City likely knew his name before Sunday.
Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore were Pro Football Weekly's Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year — they became the household names this season — and Williams lived in their shadows, despite starting 15 games and finishing the regular season tied for the team lead in interceptions with four.
He added another pick Sunday, late in the third quarter, right after the Saints has scored for the first time all game against the Minnesota Vikings, cutting into a 17-0 lead that looked inpenetrable. That the Saints somehow managed to come back — first to take the lead at 21-20 with three minutes left, then again at 24-23 with one minute remaining — was incredible enough. They likely don't get to that point without Williams' pick and runback that set up the Saints' second touchdown of the game.
And as the Saints' defense lined up for a 3rd-and-10 play with the Vikings on their own 39-yard line with 10 seconds remaining, Williams could have been a hero in the game. He wasn't perfect, committing a pass-interference call near the end zone, but he had played well enough to help his team win.
To that point.
Case Keenum dropped back past his own 30-yard line on the slow-developing play. This was it. This would almost certainly be the Vikings' final pass of the game. Keenum arced a rainbow down the right sideline and had Stefon Diggs open ...
Now maybe if Williams, the deep man on that side of the field, tackles Diggs or pushes him out of bounds, the Vikings still win. Diggs caught it with five seconds left, just on the other side of the New Orleans 30. Figure at worst it's a 51-yard field-goal try, maybe even as short as 47, if Diggs can stop the clock.
The Saints could have lost in heartbreaking fashion on a field goal, too. Had that happened, the goats would not have been so obvious, and it would have been one of the first results when you typed "worst Saints collapse" into your friendly Google. You could have blamed Sean Payton for his bizarre challenges or Willie Snead for overthrowing a wide-open touchdown or any other number of people.
But that's not how it went down.
"I knew the situation," Williams said after the game. "You just got to make sure you make the play."
Diggs caught it, and Williams played it like a man not wanting to commit a pass-interfence penalty. Or a rookie unsure of how aggressive or passive to be in that moment. Or maybe as a player who had a reputation coming out of Utah as a guy who, um, well, wasn't known as the best tackler.
On the night the Saints used the 42nd overall pick in last year's draft on him, Williams challenged that notion.
"I feel like I’m a pretty good tackler and I don’t miss many tackles," he said on a conference call with New Orleans media last April. "So that kind of upsets me because I never miss that many tackles before ...
"They say, 'Marcus misses [too] many tackles,' and that’s not the type of player I am. I’m getting them to the ground, no matter how I’m doing it.”
Fair or not, Williams might never live down the moment that gave the Vikings one of the wilder victories in postseason history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first ever “walk-off” touchdown catch in the fourth quarter of a postseason game.
Williams looked to be trying to cut out the legs of the leaping Diggs, and if he makes the tackle it's a well-timed play. But ... Williams didn't make the play. Diggs kept his balance on the sideline as Williams whiffed — absolutely flew right by Diggs' legs — and did what no one imagined: romped into the end zone.
"I felt like I was a little early," Williams said after the game. "But at that point, I just got to make the tackle."
This was not a Hail Mary, per se. The ball was caught more than 30 yards from the end zone. A touchdown at that moment, even as Diggs caught it, still felt highly improbable. But adding injury to insult, Williams' fly-by also inadvertantly knocked out the legs of his teammate, cornerback Ken Crawley, who might have been the one man left with a chance to catch Diggs.
What looked poised to be yet another haunting chapter in the Vikings' painful playoff history turned into absolute mayhem in a stunned US Bank Stadium.
“This will take a while to get over,” Payton said.
Pandemonium on one side. Misery on the other. Williams becoming known for one of the worst missed tackles in recent postseason memory. It all happened in a flash.
“It’s not on one player,” Payton added, and he was right.
Payton made sure to note that Williams had a good season. He was right about that, too. But none of that matters now. Fair or not, Williams' name will be etched into Saints' lore forever, and — at least until he does something equally memorable in a positive direction — not in a good way.
Twitter went to down on him. People he's never met and who may never have known him before that play made him their target. Such is life in the NFL. Steve Gleason, who is as close to immortal in Saints' fans eyes, has begged the Who Dats to go easy on the kid. But even that might not do it.
Williams was an unheralded recruit in high school, playing wide receiver until a teammate's injury moved him to safety out of necessity. Once there, he started making game-changing plays. Prior to that, he had been known more for his basketball skills. But Williams used his leaping, timing and athletic instincts to translate from basketball to football, and suddenly he became a hotter commodity in recruiting circles.
At Utah, Williams started almost immediately and even shocked his upperclassmen teammates with his confidence and skill. He didn't arrive on campus looking to make friends or earn praise for deference to his elders there, just to win a job and be the best he could be. Eventually, the teammates were won over. Williams was good enough to declare early for the NFL draft and be one of the first 50 players selected.
Williams was raised by Jehovah's Witnesses, and their beliefs tell him that suffering is a part of life. God might not have originated suffering, but darn it, it's a part of your time here on Earth. Just be sure not to curse His name when it happens. "When under trial, let no one say: 'I am being tried by God,’" The Book of James reads. "For with evil things God cannot be tried nor does he himself try anyone."
Williams will feel tried in this moment. By Saints fans. By casual NFL observers who now know his name. By anyone who watched that shocking finish. Because, they'll say, he needs to make that tackle.
But some of those people whom Williams won over at Utah immediately came to the young man's side in his darkest hour. Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley tweeted out, "Marcus Williams has been through adversity before and handled it like a warrior! He will do the same with this. Great rookie season with [sic] 6 Interceptions and has shown that he will be special in that league. One play will not define this young man, and he will come back stronger!!"
According to NFL Network's Alex Fannigan, Williams fell to his knees on his way to the Saints' locker room after his missed tackle; inside the locker room, he cried with his head in his hands. But he gathered himself and faced the media after the game, ready to hold himself accountable.
"I'm gonna take it upon myself to do all that I can to never let that happen again," he said.
This is an NFL rookie who could play a decade in the league or more. Is his career already defined? There are many ways to prevent this from happening, and winning a Super Bowl is one surefire, albeit extremely difficuly, way of achieving it. But he already took the important first step by making his promise.
“I don't feel like anybody in here is down on me or anything like that,” Williams said, via The Advocate. “I feel like we're all together."
The Book of Job is a lesson on faith. In the story, Job is meant to suffer almost mercilously to the point where that faith is tested in the toughest way possible. Satan steals and kills Job’s livestock, takes his 10 children in a storm and inflicts him with a terrible sickness. Job remained faithful thoughout, and in time he was rewarded with salvation.
Williams' deliverance might take time. And you might not believe in his religion, but he will have his chance to change his story. Perspective tells us that, as bad as Williams' mistake was, his team still could have lost had he done his job properly.
Most people might not see it that way. But Williams must. It either will wreck him or go down one day as his reckoning. Right now, though, that just feels so far away, even if it shouldn't.