Williams' shocking retirement leaves Dolphins in lurch
Posted: Sunday July 25, 2004 8:47PM; Updated: Monday July 26, 2004 4:23PM
A flabbergasted Dave Wannstedt is left to pick up the pieces in Miami.
The Ricky Williams retirement news was startling to everyone in and around the Dolphins. No exceptions. You want to knock Dave Wannstedt over with a feather? You could have done that Friday afternoon in Naples, the tiny resort town on the west coast of Florida. Wannstedt and wife Jan, on one of their last days of vacation, were eating lunch when his cell phone rang. It was Ricky Williams, calling from Hawaii. Wannstedt wondered about the weather out there. Fine, coach. They small-talked for another minute.
"Coach," Williams said, "I've got some bad news for you."
"What is it Ricky? You okay?" Wannstedt said.
"I'm going to retire from football," Williams said.
By Sunday evening, the shock hadn't worn off much. "I mean," Wannstedt told me, "you're talking about something so totally unexpected. You go from shock, to compassion, to anger. It's so totally hard to figure. Ricky came in this March at 228, two pounds less than his playing weight. He was in great shape, ready to play. He doesn't miss a practice all offseason. He's into everything."
On June 22, Wannstedt convened a group of 22 team leaders, a sort of Dolphin kitchen cabinet. One by one they spoke of their goals and hopes for the season. Williams got up and talked about how important the season was for everyone in the room, including him, and how this was their year. "He was every bit as enthusiastic as everyone else in the room who spoke," Wannstedt said. "That's what's so bizarre about this."
And until Friday, when Williams called Wannstedt from Hawaii, not a soul in the organization has heard word one from Williams about retiring. "This just hit us right in the mouth," Miami GM RickSpielman said. "A total surprise."
Now, others knew more about Williams' thoughts, Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald and ESPN for one. He said on his radio show Sunday morning that Williams has been thinking about this for a while but thought he could make it through one more season before retiring. But in a phone call from Hawaii to the mainland Saturday night, he told Le Batard he was through. Heck of a story by Le Batard. So good, in fact, that Wannstedt and the entire Dolphin Nation were taken aback by it. Wannstedt was convinced he'd have a conversation or two more to try to talk Williams out of it. He was expecting to hear back from Williams, in fact, Saturday and didn't. But Le Batard did.
"I don't want to do it anymore," Williams told Le Batard. "That's it. I don't want to do this anymore. If people really care about me, that would be enough for them.''
Ricky being Ricky. When I woke to the news Sunday, I have to say my first thought (after, of course, "Wow!") was: I'm always surprised that more NFL players don't retire before their time.
Two reasons. One: Have you ever stood on the sidelines of an NFL game? I have. It's positively scary. Grown men -- big grown men, hopped-up big grown men -- are running into each other, often head-on, at full speed. The sound and fury is about three times what you see on TV. Maybe the players who've done it for so long are immune to it, but let me tell you something, people -- those are car wrecks that go on out there. Bruce Smith once told me his job on Sundays was a series of car accidents, and he had to steel himself to the fact that he was sacrificing X number of years off his life to make the lives of his extended family members (and himself, certainly) better.
Second reason: This may come as a shock to you, but not every football player loves football. Ricky Williams didn't love the game. He liked it, sure. But love? Not Williams. He likes too many things in life to be in love with football. Traveling, photography, his kids, being alone. And after making $16 million or so in football over his five seasons, he knew he could do what he wanted to do. When you read this, I'm sure many of you are going to think, "What's there not to like about playing a sport and making millions for a living?" Well, to most people, nothing. And to most football players, nothing. But it is physically and mentally demanding. It should not be a crime for a man to want to do other things with his life than play football. Which is why, other than his timing (which is a severe betrayal to his teammates and employers, the same betrayal Barry Sanders inflicted on the Lions six years ago, and enough for a Dolphin fan to hate the guy), this decision ought to be perfectly fine with anyone. It's America. A guy can do what he wants.
Williams is one unusual dude. I like him, though I don't know him well at all. My few contacts with him were always extremely pleasant, even going back to his days with the Saints, when the free world thought he was the weirdest man on the planet. SI sent me into New Orleans during his rookie year, when he was on this kick of wearing his helmet for interviews, and he talked to me for 45 minutes, sitting deep in his locker after a game. I could barely hear him. But he was a sensitive guy. Some players are like that. The next year I had a Saints teammate, journeyman quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, look across the aisle in the Saints' locker room at Ricky and wonder if Williams "would go postal" one day. That's what a lot of his teammates wondered. Not, literally, if he would shoot up a post office. But that he would snap because he was such a different bird from everyone else in the room. He wasn't a guy who'd be in the Friday evening drinking clique, or the Monday night carousing clique. And when you're different in the NFL, you get tagged with being a weirdo. I had various mates tell me over the years that he and his locker smelled of severe B.O. (which I can confirm), that he was alarmingly antisocial, and that he had no interest in being their friend. None of which, by the way, makes him a bad person.
Two years ago, when Williams got traded from New Orleans to Miami, I flew to Newport Beach, Calif., to meet Williams at agent Leigh Steinberg's office. It was March. Williams was having fun, playing with the photographer we'd assigned to the gig, looking through his camera, trying to figure what the best shot would be on a perfect California Saturday. That Saturday afternoon, I could have sworn Williams would play for 10 years. Maybe he'd set the all-time rushing record. Whatever, he was going to an offense that was perfect for him -- an offense that would put it in his hands 360 times a season and let him rip.
The weirdness I'd seen in him was gone. At least it seemed gone. We spent three hours together, talking about everything. Maybe it was the medicine he was taking for social-anxiety disorder, but this was a man in love with football and with life. He seemed miles away from the guy so freaked out about the ridiculous trade the Saints made to get him, dealing an entire draft for him in 1999.
"When I got drafted by New Orleans for all those picks," he said, "I was an innocent bystander. I wasn't ready as a football player or a man for the situation I stepped into. But now, whether they want me to just contribute to the team or carry the team, I'm ready. I'm so ready.''
Does this sound like a man who'd play two years and can his career? Well, that's Ricky Williams. As Bill Parcells says, "They don't sell insurance for this kind of thing."
I remember Wannstedt telling me something that weekend that should provide a clue into Williams' retirement. I wrote: "Wannstedt went to the Honda Classic golf tournament in Coral Springs, Fla., Saturday and saw several Dolphin jerseys already emblazoned with '34'' and 'Williams'' on the back. When the fans saw Wannstedt, they chanted, 'Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!' Said Wannstedt: 'The people here are starving for an offensive hero, especially with Danny [Marino] gone. These people are going nuts. Ricky has no idea what he's walking into.'"
Well, he found out. Williams was never into fans swooning over him or a team. My feeling is that the whole hero-worship, sicko-fandom thing contributed to this, as did the fact that he's just one of those people who wanted something more out of life than football could give him. Do I think he'll change his mind? Absolutely not. Steinberg is going to try to get his college coach, Mack Brown, to call Williams to talk him out of it. Wannstedt called Mike Ditka, Williams' old coach with the Saints, gave him Williams' cell number and asked him to call. Ditka said he would.
But the Dolphins, deep down, are pretty sure it's over. They already have heard from two backs who might fit -- free agents Stacey Mack and James Stewart, with Mack more likely because he's more of a bruiser like Williams. You can bet a deep-dish pizza that Chicago GM Jerry Angelo will try to pawn off Anthony Thomas on the Dolphins this week. Wannstedt may sign a free agent this week, but he'll most likely play wait-and-see with any big plans, until he sees how the guys in-house will handle the job.
The Dolphins were stiff-upper-lipping it Sunday afternoon, putting a good public face on the fiasco. "We're not a one-man team," Wannstedt said. For two seasons of stellar service, it turns out that Williams cost them first-round picks in 2002 and 2003. And got them to the playoffs zero times. There's no getting around it. Except for maybe Tom Brady, Ricky Williams was the Most Valuable Player in the AFC East, and he was the key to whatever title hopes Miami had. Now he's gone. And Travis Minor and Sammy Morris, those sudden fantasy football must-haves, are left to clean up the mess. I will be amazed if Wannstedt can make an 11-win team out of the Dolphins this year. In fact, if he does, he's coach of the year. This is an unmitigated disaster for Miami. Barring Feeley/Fiedler throwing for 28 touchdowns, the Dolphins have 7-9 written all over them.
Miami GM Rick Spielman, who, with coach Dave Wannstedt, began to plot the future of the Dolphins' running game Sunday.
MMQB: Had a few phone calls today from running backs looking for work?
Spielman: "Everyone has called. I think Leroy Kelly called. We're not going to rush into anything. We're going to see how our guys stack up, then I'm sure we'll be looking to see what's available out there."
MMQB: Will your offensive philosophy change?
Spielman: "I don't think so. Dave's philosophy is that you have a rock-solid defense, and you complement it with a strong running game. We like to run the football. I'm sure we'll take into account the strengths of the guys we have here and try to play to their specific skills."
MMQB: I don't know how there can't be a cloud over this team heading into training camp, losing your best player like this.
Spielman: "Well, now that it's happened, you can do one of two things. You can sulk about it, or you can get ready for the season. We really don't have the time to sit and ponder what a tough blow it is. Too much hard work has been put in by too many guys for us to give up. We have to treat it like we lost a player with an injury on the first day of training camp. But it's a heck of a thing to have happen, in the middle of a pretty weird offseason. Hopefully, it'll be another thing in a list of things that, if we win this year, you'll be able to sit back and write a pretty good book about."
Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, one of Dan Snyder's more interesting free-agent signings with Washington (2002: 6 years, $36 million; whacked in June), signed with the Eagles two weeks ago. But when a team dumps a big contract, there's always some cap residue, called dead money, left in his wake.
Trotter's 2004 cap number with Washington, the team he won't play for: $1,240,000.
Trotter's 2004 cap number with Philadelphia, the team he will play for: $450,000.
I have had it with the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
I mean, I love it, obviously. It's the best theater in sports. But from now on, unless it's October, I think I'll enjoy the games from in front of the TV.
As most of you know, I am partial to the Red Sox. (Have mercy on my soul, then.) I'm at Yankee Stadium July 1, at the phenomenal 13-inning, 5-4 New York win, the one with all the comebacks and the Derek Jeter slamming into the second row of the stands to get the Trot Nixon foul pop. Just a tremendous, wonderful sports event, and I say that even though my team lost. You have to be able to appreciate drama in sports when it comes, even if the drama makes you want to puke.
And I do not write this to say Yankee fans are heathens and Red Sox fans a bunch of Albert Schweitzers. I've seen and heard crude idiots, loads of them, at each place. The rivalry brings out the hooligan in thousands of people at these games, and I'm just tired of it.
At this July 1 game, the guy across the aisle, maybe a 22-ish man with a Yankee T-shirt and Yankee cap, came to the game in a party of four drunk. He was there with his girlfriend and two henchmen, one so drunk that he fell asleep in the fifth inning and woke up for maybe 15 minutes the rest of the night. Fell asleep in the middle of all this mayhem and screaming! That's how drunk he was. The leader of the pack, Yankee guy, screams at every passerby who is wearing anything red, "Red Sox SUCK! You suck TOOOO!"
Cute. After 637 times, not so cute. And he was not saying it in a normal tone. He was screaming it, every time. For 13 innings. There was a father with three young girls on the other side of us (I could never tell what team he was rooting for, which leads me to believe he was a Sox fan, because he and the brood must have been scared to utter anything positive about Boston), recoiling at the verbal blasts that continued for 13 innings. Once, I saw a young girl, maybe 20, walk up our aisle with a "Jeter Sucks" T-shirt on, and two yellow-coated guards hustled over. After a quick conference, her boyfriend came over. More talking back and forth, the guards pointing at the shirt. Finally the girl took the shirt off (she had a white T-shirt on beneath it) and went to her seat. So the girl couldn't express her opinion, but the drunken lunatic could express his, 637 times. Nice country.
When Manny Ramirez hit his second home run of the game, giving the Red Sox a 4-3 lead in the top of the 13th, I stood to cheer with a few folks from the section. "Siddown ---hole!" came a voice from behind me.
Driving home, I wondered what the three girls were left thinking. And the dad. I'm sure, if they play sports, he has told them to play with class, to be good sports, to never curse or deride the other team during or before or after a game. And so here we are, on sports' biggest stage, and every lesson kids are supposed to be learning about sportsmanship gets flushed down the toilet at one of these games.
I stress that the same stuff happens at Fenway. I've seen it, heard it. In no way am I saying Yankee fans are lower than Red Sox fans. Both are indictable. I would just ask anyone who reads this and goes to games of great magnitude: You are setting an example for future generations. And it's not a very good one. In fact, it ... well, I'm not going to say it. But you can probably figure it out.
Good batch of mail this week, even though I've been off for a month.
JAKE DELHOMME DOESN'T DESERVE THE DOUGH. From Lee Goldman, of Deer Park, N.Y.: " 'Hooray for a good guy?' That is how you sum up the Panthers grossly overpaying for an average QB who had one decent season as a starter behind a tremendous O-line, consistent running game and suffocating defense. All because he is a nice guy? Who cares? My grandpa is a nice guy, but he's not worth $6.5 million a year. There are at least 15 starters that are better than JakeDelhomme right now. He is what he is, an 80-passer-rating QB in a good system."
Lee, you're entitled to your opinion. Just curious: Did you watch the Super Bowl, when Delhomme led the Panthers on TD drives of 81, 90 and 80 yards in the last 15 minutes against the stingiest defense in football, and when he threw for 263 yards in the second half in the biggest game of his life?
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
UH-OH. JINTS FANS ARE MAD. From Lee Cheyne, of Silver Springs, Md.: "As a lifelong Giants fan I am on the verge of imploding. First they mortgage their draft this year and next to get Eli Manning, when equal passers were available. Then they bring in Kurt Warner, who hasn't played a decent series in two years, to help develop Manning. Rebuilding is one thing. Being stupid is another."
Look. The Giants are banking their future on Eli Manning. It's as simple as that. I have my doubts about him too, especially because I think Philip Rivers is just as good. But let's see what happens. As far as Warner goes, we're in the same camp there. I don't see him recovering.
WHICH CAME FIRST -- THE PARCELLS OR THE BELICHICK? From Sean Rowe of Quaker Hill, Conn.: "Please set these New England Patriot morons straight. Bill Parcells is a great coach. Bill Belichick is a really good coach, perhaps even great. Parcells didn't excel as a head coach BECAUSE of Belichick. He excelled with him. People up here believe that Parcells is nothing without Belichick. It's foolish."
That's one of the problems when you compare people who have done good jobs. Both of these coaches have. Why denigrate one to advance the cause of another? If Belichick keeps winning, he will put his own footprints in the sand of NFL history, right next to those of Parcells. Who is better? How can you say now? Both men are still coaching.
NOW A KNOCK ON MY BASEBALL ACUMEN. From Patrick Alexander of Chicago: "David Ortiz an everyday player? I know you Red Sox fans are in the habit of stealing players with pretty numbers and then wondering why you can't beat the Yanks. Ortiz is not an everyday player. He is HORRIBLE against lefties. Plus his defense makes Manny Ramirez look like a gold-glover. I know you like the guy. Heck, us Twins fans liked him too ... but look beyond the surface."
I'll try. All I know is, I want a guy playing every day who, in all of baseball, is third in RBIs and fifth in homers, and who has a slugging percentage 95 points higher than Alex Rodriguez.
HE'S SHOCKED ABOUT SHOCKEY. From Mark Sheplak of Stanhope, N.J.: "Your 'so-so' comment describing Jeremy Shockey's numbers couldn't be farther from reality. Can you name another TE averaging 82 catches and 950 yards per season? How do you define impact?"
Well, let's fix your numbers first. Shockey, in two years, has averaged 61 catches per year, for 715 yards and two touchdowns on the average. I'd call that pretty mediocre. This is a man who in two years has had 13 games of 50 yards or more receiving in a game. I like Shockey. I'm just saying, in health and numbers, he's been a lot less than I thought he'd be.
1. I think it's great to be back writing this column. Hello everyone. Vacation was fun. I sat on the right-field wall at Fenway (lots of fun, and a great view), saw a Class A Blue Claws game in Lakewood, N.J. (one of the best minor-league parks and experiences in America), ate at a Mario Batali restaurant in the Village, Babbo (I know I tend to exaggerate, but I think it's the best restaurant I've experienced, with 12-year-old balsamic vinegar coating a rib eye to die for), coached the ever-fun 10-and-under softball travel team the Montclair Bears, sponsored by SI and SI.com (we're 5-10, but who's counting when you're having so much fun?), had a relaxing Acela trip to Boston (the best way to travel anywhere, people) and experienced baseball on HD TV. Folks, there is nothing like high def. It's stupidly expensive to get one of those TVs, and there's not enough HD events yet, but every one you can see is well worth it.
2. I think I'd like to thank Ricky Williams for giving us all something to write other than the snoozy training-camp previews.
3. I think I heard Sunday, reliably, that Eddie George would definitely have been a Dolphin if Ricky Williams had called Dave Wannstedt with his retirement news 48 hours earlier. No doubt about it. And Antowain Smith might have been a Fish, not a Titan, with better timing.
4. I think Dan Marino must be really, really glad he didn't take that Miami president's job.
5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Coffeenerdness: I have come to the conclusion, after frequent Starbucks stops in the last month, that there is no hope for the Starbucks baristas who use the old-fashioned pods instead of the new automatic shots of espresso that come out of the newfangled espresso machines. Replace 'em all, Starbucks. You're not giving us true lattes with the old one.
b. Baseball Note of the Week. I've watched enough Boston innings over the past month (roughly all of them) to make one statement: Yes, the defense is abominable, but the biggest reason why this team is .500 over the past three months is that Scott Williamson is disabled and Curtis Leskanic is pitching. Sounds idiotically simplistic, but middle relief is just killing this team.
c. Finally got around to The DaVinci Code, which I liked a lot. But I couldn't quite figure out the ending. I guess that is not a good sign of my intelligence. Also read Rule of Four, which I found tedious, and Leigh Montville's book on Ted Williams, which is absolutely terrific.
d. I am happy to report that Mary Beth, a month away from Colgate, has added the National Geographic channel to her most-watched list of channels. She's all about discovery stuff now, and when she's not watching that, she's Murder: She Wrote-ing us to death.
6. I think I start my training-camp trip Wednesday in Denver. I'll be interested to meet and watch this Tatum Bell guy. Heard a lot of good things about him, and he could be the guy Mike Shanahan turns to if Quentin Griffin isn't the man early in the running game.
7. I think the Cowboys paid an awful lot of guaranteed money to Eddie George. To give a guy clearly in the twilight (for the last four years) $1.5 million when they didn't have to ... I mean, Jerry Jones is smarter than that, isn't he?
8. I think the NFL Network is talking to a few really good people about coming on board. No one can see it, but that thing could be a force pretty soon.
9. I think everybody's chasing the Patriots. They better have some significant injuries if someone's going to catch them.
10. I think, having said that, that I enter training camp looking at a Seattle-Jacksonville Super Bowl. Still. Call me crazy.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.