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If Ricky Williams' retirement is to teach us anything, it's that NFL coaches must accept they can't work miracles. I've never seen a player with such an innate ability to mystify so many men with simple agendas. Williams has played for three head coaches. All they wanted was to hand him the ball and watch him run. He inevitably made that process seem more complicated than resolving who's at fault for 9/11.
What's even more fascinating is men like Mike Ditka, Jim Haslett and Dave Wannstedt thought they could correct Williams' most glaring fault -- his obvious lack of accountability. Consider some proof of why he wasn't responsible enough to have a long, productive pro career: He was 20 pounds overweight when he attended the 1999 NFL scouting combine; he repeatedly showed up late for meetings during his three years with the New Orleans Saints; he blasted his Saints offensive linemen in a Sports Illustrated article after his rookie year and; he griped about a lousy contract negotiated by a lousy agent employed by the lousy rapper he hired to represent him. These were all matters Williams could have prevented but didn't.
Incredibly, that type of immaturity never stopped coaches from thinking he could be harnessed. That's how powerful such men have become in the NFL. They can study a player as unpredictable as Williams and believe they can make him fit their system. Some foolishly think no man in today's game is defiant enough to risk money or public embarrassment to undermine the plans of men who now operate like CEO's. It's the type of hubris that makes Bill Parcells comfortable enough to utter an offensive remark about Asian-Americans and assume it will be treated as justifiable humor.
Ditka had such a massive ego he traded every Saints pick to select Williams out of Texas in the '99 draft. Williams repaid that gamble by sulking, conducting interviews with his helmet on and ripping the city of New Orleans. When Haslett took over the Saints in '00, he tried intimidating his star back. He called Williams into his office shortly after taking the job, told him to knock off the immature behavior and expected Williams to quiver at the possibility of severe fines. What Haslett eventually discovered is the more you tried to push Williams into becoming a conformist, the more stubborn he became. But out of all of Williams' coaches, Wannstedt had the best chance of reaching him.
Wannstedt prides himself on communicating with his players, and Williams appeared to buy into his system. When police pulled Williams over on a traffic stop in Fort Lauderdale in June '02, Wannstedt was one of the first people Williams called while sitting in his car. Williams later told me that that was an indication of how much he trusted Wannstedt, who had dealt two first-round picks to acquire him. "If I had called Jim Haslett in that same situation," Williams said, "He would've said, 'Why the hell are you calling me?'"
My last conversation with Williams occurred prior to his first game with the Dolphins, and there was a notable highlight to it. Williams had been rummaging through a huge cardboard box while we spoke, sifting through old possessions that had been shipped from New Orleans. After pulling out assorted letters and photos, he finally found several photocopies of his driver's license. His plan was to keep a copy in all of his vehicles since he hadn't been able to produce a license or proof of insurance during the Fort Lauderdale traffic stop. I didn't bother asking why he didn't just carry his license on him. This was typical Ricky Williams behavior, and it made me wonder if Wannstedt might pay for his faith in this wild card one day.
That time has now come. And as Wannstedt deals with a devastated team, he must also understand he's merely the last in a short line of coaches who got burned by their own egos. He got Williams to control his weight, his tendency for tardiness and his reluctance to be a vocal locker-room presence. But Wannstedt couldn't pull off the impossible. He couldn't get Ricky Williams to change who he is. That's why I wouldn't be surprised if Williams is lighting up in Asia right now. And it's why nobody should've been surprised this happened.
But that's enough about Ricky. Here are my thoughts on three other topics as training camps open this week:
Dallas running back Eddie George: He may be on his last legs, but he is still giving fans at his alma mater, Ohio State, a reason to be proud. How many stud athletes became disappointments or major headaches after leaving that program as first-round picks in the '90s? My short list includes Dan Wilkinson, Rickey Dudley, Andy Katzenmoyer, Craig Powell, Terry Glenn and David Boston.
Washington running back Clinton Portis: He'll miss the AFC West. He averaged 134.3 yards against Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego last season. In other words, AFC West opponents accounted for 50.7 percent of his 1,591 rushing yards in '03.
Defensive tackle Darrell Russell, formerly of Tampa Bay: I'm not shocked he's earned his second indefinite suspension from the NFL for repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Two years ago I saw Russell stroll out of the VIP room at a San Diego nightclub while he was in the midst of his last suspension (which lasted a year and a half while he was a member of the Oakland Raiders). He bought a round of drinks for a handful of buddies, joked about when he'd be back in the league and ambled right back through the velvet ropes. It was a scene that belonged in HBO's new sitcom Entourage (which I highly recommend watching. It's Sex and the City for men, or at the very least, it's a story of what would've happened if any of the guys in Swingers hit it big in Hollywood.)
I don't know Russell well enough to know if he has an addiction problem, but I know this: He's an athlete who is extremely intelligent, so much so he thinks he can get away with anything.