Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Williams was drafted in the first round (17th overall) of the 1978 NFL Draft, chosen by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Grambling State University. He led the Bucs to three playoff appearances and one NFC title game from 1979 to 1982. His 31-34-1 regular season record, and 1-3 playoff record made him the best quarterback in Buc history. The Bucs, who had never been to the playoffs before Williams arrived, had gone to the playoffs three times in four years and played in the 1979 NFC Championship Game. Williams improved his completion percentage each year with the Bucs, but was regarded as the heart and soul of the team, and the driving force behind the winning.

However, during his tenure in Tampa, Williams was only paid $120,000 a year—far and away the lowest salary for a starting quarterback in the league, and behind 12 backups. After the 1982 season, Williams asked for a $600,000 contract. Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse refused to budge from his initial offer of $400,000 despite protests from coach John McKay. While Culverhouse’s offer was still more than triple Williams’ previous salary, he would have still been among the lowest-paid starters in the league. Feeling that Culverhouse wasn’t paying him what a starter should earn, Williams bolted to the upstart United States Football League. The next year the Bucs went 2-14, and they would not make the playoffs again for 14 years until after the 1997 season, and lost ten games in every season but one in that stretch. Many Bucs fans blame Culverhouse’s refusal to bend in the negotiations with Williams as a major factor. Culverhouse’s willingness to let Williams get away over such a relatively small amount of money was seen as particularly insensitive, coming only months after Williams’ wife Janice died of a brain tumor.

Oklahoma/Arizona Outlaws

Williams quickly signed with one of the USFL’s expansion teams, the Oklahoma Outlaws. He would lead his team in passing completing 261 out of 528 passes for 3,084 yards and threw 15 touchdowns, yet he also threw 21 interceptions, ending up with a passer rating of 60.5, during his team’s dismal 6-12 season. In 1985, when his team moved to Arizona and fused with the Arizona Wranglers to become the Arizona Outlaws, Williams showed some improvement, completing 271 out of 509 passes for 3,673 yards with 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, ending up with a 76.4 passer rating. However, his Outlaws’ just missed the playoffs with an 8-10 record.

Washington Redskins

After the USFL shut down in 1986, Williams returned to the NFL, joining the Washington Redskins at the behest of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who had been the offensive coordinator at Tampa Bay when Williams was there.

Initially Williams served as the backup for starting quarterback Jay Schroeder, but after Schroeder became injured, Williams stepped in and led the Redskins to an opening-day victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. It would be one of three times in 1987 that Williams subbed for Schroeder and led the team to victory (the other two were 11/15 vs. Detroit and 12/26 at Minnesota). Williams only started two games, 9/20 at Atlanta and 11/23 vs. the Rams. While both starts were losses, at the end of the season, when the Redskins had qualified for the playoffs, Williams, with his 94.0 passer rating, was chosen as the starter. He led the team to Super Bowl XXII in which they routed the Denver Broncos, becoming the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, and as of Super Bowl XLIII, the only black quarterback to win one.

Facing legendary Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, Williams engineered a 42-10 rout, in which the Redskins set an NFL record by scoring five touchdowns in the second quarter. Williams completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards, with four touchdown passes, and was named Super Bowl MVP.

Williams retired with a 5-9 record as Redskins starter (8-9, counting playoffs) and a 38-42-1 record as a regular season starter (42-45-1, including 7 playoff starts). He had 100 passing touchdowns, and 15 rushing touchdowns, in 88 NFL games.