Posted: Tuesday March 22, 2005 8:40PM; Updated: Tuesday March 22, 2005 9:02PM
It will take a minor miracle for Ricky Williams to don the aqua and white this season, but Nick Saban's keeping the option open.
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KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The Miami Dolphins' eight-month search for a lead running back took a curious but circular turn Tuesday when new Dolphins head coach Nick Saban broached the name of a surprising long-shot candidate for the job:
Remember him? The guy who got Miami in all this mess to begin with?
Don't expect to see Williams back in his familiar No. 34 aqua and white jersey any time soon, but the Ricky saga did percolate to the surface at the NFL's annual meeting when Saban confirmed to reporters that he had recently spoken with Williams and was leaving the door open for the quixotic running back's return.
"The guy has value to the organization,'' said Saban, discussing all things Ricky in a 73-minute gabfest at the AFC head coaches media breakfast. "He's property of the Dolphins. He's obviously shown an ability with his history as a player to be a very productive, actually dominating, player at times at his position.
"So if Ricky shows some commitment in wanting to come back to the team, basically it's our philosophy that we would support him to try to help him do that. Now there are a lot of issues surrounding that. And that's something we have to deal with. But we would be supportive of him.''
Of course, commitment is a quality that hasn't exactly been Williams' strong suit of late, or at least since he sent shock waves through the NFL and Miami with his surprising decision to retire last July and leave the Dolphins' rushing game in the lurch. And the fact remains that nobody seems to know if Williams really wants to make his living in the NFL again -- perhaps not even Williams himself, who reportedly was traveling in India as recently as last week.
But if he does, and if he can get past all the financial and punitive hurdles that block his path back to the field, Saban made it clear that a fully committed and engaged Williams would be welcomed back to South Florida. Because, well, the Dolphins still need to find themselves a running back, and maybe they just don't feel like spending their No. 2 overall draft pick on one.
"I think if he showed he was committed to coming back and wanting to be a productive player, that's the only issue with me,'' Saban said. "From a team standpoint, I've discussed this with some of the key leaders on the team ... and it would be counterproductive to me to turn my back on all that.''
When Williams turned his back on the Dolphins just before the opening of last year's training camp, many Miami players said they would have a hard time ever trusting him again as a teammate. But that was so then, and this is very much now, Saban said.
"My wife once said, 'I'll never speak to you again.' But she's here, right up in the room up there,'' Saban quipped. "People make emotional decisions and judgments about things. We all do. Sometimes time heals that. I'm not saying what happened is OK. But I wasn't here for it, OK? I think that the leadership on the team that I've spoken with has been more interested in the same things I'm interested in. If he's committed to coming back and he can help us win, that's something that we're interested in doing.''
Conveniently forgetting about Jim Brown, Saban noted that with the exception of Barry Sanders, "most great athletes that have retired prematurely through the history of sports have all shown an interest to come back at some point in time.''
That may be true, but few, if any, would have encountered the obstacles that Williams faces in a potential return to an NFL sideline. For starters, under the terms of the NFL substance abuse policy, Williams can't return to the Dolphins until late July without facing a one-year league suspension for failing drug tests last year. In the best-case scenario, Williams would not be able to play until he served a four-game suspension at the start of the 2005 regular season, with the accompanying loss of salary.
And then there's the still-unresolved matter of the $8.6 million breach of contract judgment the Dolphins won against the running back, of which Williams has been advised by the NFL Players Association to drop his appeal. Throw in that Williams reportedly has dropped 30 pounds from his playing weight and is in no shape to play football and you don't exactly have the makings of a Sugar Ray Leonard-type comeback, do you?
Thus, no one should operate under the misguided perception that the Dolphins are either counting on Williams, or remotely expecting him to be in their backfield again at some point in 2005. Miami is still a solid bet to take its top-rated running back with the draft's No. 2 pick, and the Williams option is seen as nothing more than a maybe that the Dolphins are looking at with a nothing-to-lose attitude. Which is understandable, given that Williams' retirement already cost them about as much as it possibly could have in 2004.