Ricky Williams is a new man but showed his old stuff as the Saints whipped the Bills
Are you kidding? Ricky Williams getting chummy with teammates? That was the gist of Saints coach Jim Haslett's reaction last week when wideout Joe Horn told him what a good time he'd had the previous night playing cards with Williams—and 20 other teammates, no less—at the home of the formerly standoffish running back. "I'll tell you why Ricky's different this year," Horn says. "He's feeling the love from his teammates. He knows we care about him and we like him."
Having been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder during the off-season, Williams has been taking the antidepressant Paxil. He has turned from a good-hearted but aloof and moody man to Mr. Congeniality, and the personality change has coincided with his new attitude as a football player. Challenged by the club's selection of Mississip
pi miming back Deuce McAllister in the first round of last April's draft, Williams turned into an especially hard worker who was not about to let anyone take his job. As McAllister was en route to a 108-yard rushing day in the Saints' meaningless preseason finale at Seattle, Williams sidled up to Haslett and said, "Coach, I could have 200 yards right now."
He might have had 200 in New Orleans's season-opening 24-6 win at Buffalo if the coaching staff had used him more. With the Bills in a stunting, eight-man front, Williams rushed just four times for five yards in the first half. He wound up with 93 yards on 18 attempts and capped the victory with a 19-yard touchdown catch with 3:02 to play. Three plays that led to that score showed Williams at his best: 16-and 15-yard runs behind left tackle William Roaf, and a steamrollering 21-yard run up the gut.
During his rookie year, in 1999, Williams was part savior, part weirdo. He abhorred the pressure that came from the team's trading seven draft choices to get him, went through a spell in which he wore his helmet during interviews ("because I can," he said) and was the NFL's most famous recluse. Even a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2000 didn't convince Haslett and the Saints' brass that they could count on him. After missing four games because of nagging injuries as a rookie, Williams broke his left ankle in the 10th game last year and was lost for the rest of the season. Nevertheless, New Orleans won the NFC West for the first time since 1991 and four months later drafted McAllister. "I was already feeling like they didn't want me, and that was like the final nail," a perky Williams said in a corner of the Saints' locker room on Sunday.
Maybe last year he would have gone in the tank. Last year, however, he wasn't taking Paxil, and last year the Joe Horns of the team weren't hanging around with him much either. "The medication gives me more of a positive outlook," Williams says. "But it's been important to talk to people too, not just hang out by myself. I like people. I like having company"—on and off the field.
"The best thing that's happened to Ricky," says right tackle Kyle Turley, "is that the pressure has shifted [to others on the team]. Instead of Ricky the franchise, now it's Ricky the football player."
"That's right," Williams says. "I've always wanted to be a team guy, not the team." With quarterback Aaron Brooks looking like a rising star, Horn emerging as a big-play receiver and defensive linemen La'Roi Glover and Joe Johnson and strong safety Sammy Knight commanding attention, the spotlight on the former Heisman Trophy winner is not so bright. Still, the Saints have to be careful not to go too far in the other direction. Against Buffalo, Williams touched the ball on only 19 of 58 plays, not nearly enough times for the most dangerous weapon in the offense.
Reeves Wises Up
Falcons Handle Vick with Care
Eighteen years after he threw rookie quarterback John Elway, the first choice in the 1983 draft, to the wolves, Dan Reeves has been smarter with his handling of quarterback Michael Vick, the top selection last April. Vick made his debut in the Falcons' 16-13 overtime loss to the 49ers under carefully managed conditions, taking six snaps. He missed on all four of his passes, but scrambled twice for 32 yards, the latter a 25-yard dash that set up a field goal. "He looked more poised on the second drive, but that's to be expected," Reeves said. "I thought that he hurried some throws, but he'll get better."