2 New Orleans Saints
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Ricky Williams is primed to run wild after getting a not-so-subtle
By Michael Silver
Ricky Williams, the Saints' dreadlocked, oft-knocked running back, knows what you were thinking on draft day, and if it's any consolation, he was thinking the same thing. On April 21 Williams was kicking back on the couch at his San Diego beach house, playing a baseball video game on his TV when he decided to do some channel surfing. He reached for his remote control and stopped cold on ESPN: The Saints were on the clock, preparing to make their first-round draft choice.
When Paul Tagliabue announced New Orleans's selection of Mississippi halfback Deuce McAllister with the 23rd pick, Williams was as stunned as the rest of the football world. The way he has responded to that selection has generated unbridled optimism among the rejuvenated Saints, who hope to use their playoff victory last December -- the first in franchise history -- as a springboard to bigger and better things. On draft day, however, Williams was as unclear about what the future held as WebVan.
"It was kind of shocking," Williams says. "I thought we'd take a receiver or a defensive back, but a running back? No way. I just sat there saying, 'Huh?' I'm not going to lie: It was a little disturbing. Then [analyst] Joe Thiesmann kept calling me 'stupid' on TV, which didn't help. I was upset and, most of all, confused."
Williams turned off the television and telephones, opened his patio doors and stepped out onto the South Mission Beach boardwalk. Minutes later he was cruising through Point Loma on his Schwinn GT mountain bike, pondering the ramifications of the pick. Had he just lost his starting job, despite averaging 100 rushing yards per game in 2000? Was New Orleans about to get rid of him? Was the organization trying to send him a message?
The answers, it turns out, were no, no and maybe. Whatever general manager Randy Mueller's intent in drafting McAllister, Williams reacted the way his employers hoped he would: He pedaled the bike to the health club where he'd been working out regularly, showed up for the following week's minicamp in terrific shape and reminded his coaches and teammates why, when healthy, he's one of the NFL's most dangerous running backs.
"The guy was ripped, huge and ready to rumble," says Kyle Turley, the Saints' All-Pro right tackle. "On the first play he took a handoff and blasted up the middle, and even the coaches were, like, All right, we'll keep our mouths shut about Ricky from now on and let him do his thing." Center Jerry Fontenot says Williams "looked better than I'd ever seen him, even in college."
Williams credits Jim Haslett, New Orleans's popular second-year coach, with having eased his mind by giving him a vote of confidence upon his arrival at minicamp. "I like Ricky," Haslett says. "I have no problem with the guy. He's been working his butt off, and I think he's a great back."
One source in the Saints' organization says the would-be competition between Williams and McAllister was "not even close," meaning McAllister is likely to be used primarily as a change-of-pace substitute and slot receiver in third-down formations. There's one scenario in which Deuce will become the New Orleans ace: if Williams can't stay healthy, which has been the case frequently during his first two seasons. Injuries limited him to 12 games and 884 yards as a rookie, and he had just reached the 1,000-yard plateau in the Saints' 10th game last November when a broken left ankle ended his regular season. Though that injury was flukish, Williams shies away from contact the way Jesse Jackson ducks television cameras. "The dude is a head-buster," star New Orleans wideout Joe Horn says of Williams, "and that's probably why he gets hurt. He runs over people and doesn't try to avoid anyone -- and I love that attitude."
Only four NFL backs have exceeded 2,000 yards in a season, but Turley says there's a feeling among the Saints that Williams can reach that level in 2001. "The guy is a monster," Turley says. "He's a f------ bowling ball, and people are flat-out afraid of him. If you told me he'd definitely stay healthy, I'd be picking out the size of my ring."
That's not totally far-fetched. New Orleans has a fast, physical defense, a burgeoning star in third-year quarterback Aaron Brooks and a standout offensive line anchored by the ultra-aggressive Turley and the well-rounded William Roaf, perhaps the league's best tackle tandem. "Our line is so incredible and dominates so many people that my job is easy," Williams says. "Then, when I punish people, it sends a message that when you play us, it's going to hurt. I don't think I could be less physical even if I wanted to."
Issue date: September 3, 2001