There was a time when Ricky Williams was considered the NFL's premier disappointment, twice actually.
Mike Ditka handed over an entire draft for Williams' services. For the New Orleans Saints, their new running back ended up being a reclusive underperformer. When the team picked him out of Texas in 1999, it was naturally assumed they had someone who was serious about football and who had 400 carry, 2,000 yard seasons in him.
They assumed they had a workhorse. But if there's one thing Ricky Williams is, it's his own man, and nobody's to be pigeonholed. In New Orleans he flashed promise, but ultimately didn't deliver.
So Williams was packaged for a series of Miami Dolphins draft picks, and began life anew in South Beach. The initial outlook was favorable.
Arguably, his high tide came in 2002, rushing for over 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns. That was just his first season with Miami. There was no telling what kind of production the team could expect moving forward.
But you know the story. He got hurt. He smoked a lot of marijuana. He retired. He played in the CFL. It was the second time he employed a scorched earth policy on a team that had hedged its future on his motivation.
Now it's 2010. Williams has inserted himself back into the Dolphins' good books (or at least stayed off the bad ones). The team has massaged him into a running game that ranks among the league's best, and Williams is poised to do big things.
Selected in front of Williams in 1999, was Edgerrin James. James was the consummate professional Indianapolis expected when they drafted him in front of Williams. He played hard and produced immediately.
Where is he now? Stuck on the NFL's scrap heap. James is burnt out and been tossed aside. This raises the question: How is Ricky Williams still playing?
At 33, Williams is still a running back under NFL employ, which is a rarity in this era. His preservation is due to his own machinations, whether planned or not. Williams' retirement and subsequent odyssey was the Ziploc baggie that has kept him fresh into the new decade.
James had 3,028 rushing attempts in his ten seasons. Williams has only 2,164. The numbers point to Williams' relative youth.
Another running back in danger of flameout is LaDanian Tomlinson. For years, LDT set the pace for the San Diego Chargers. He was there everything, for lack of a better word. Now? He's a fringe back who will fight for playing time with the New York Jets. And he's two years younger than Williams is right now. Who would you rather draft for your fantasy team? Tomlinson has 2,880 rushing attempts in his career.
Williams is also fortunate enough to be behind one of the most potent offensive lines the Dolphins have had in recent years. There's some transitioning going on between the tackles, but the team just completed a season that saw them rush for a cumulative 2,231 yards.
With Jake Long and Vernon Carey leading the way, the Dolphins are grinders, to Williams' benefit. The offensive line is among the league's strongest when it comes to moving the ball (the second-highest power ranking on Football Outsiders). They'll keep Williams from absorbing more punishment than absolutely necessary.
Another factor increasing Williams' value is Ronnie Brown's mercurial career. The sixth-year man from Auburn has only one thousand yard season to his credit, and last season's injury was exacerbated by his offseason DUI. Though it's irrelevant to his health issues, the optics of the situation make Williams appear to have the inside track on the number one spot.
Then there's Miami's shiniest acquisition, Brandon Marshall. With him in the fold, Miami will look to pass more to justify their investment. Chad Henne is growing up quick, and his new target will insure that he'll have a home for wayward passes. Not only does this keep Williams' leg fresh, but it adds an element of unexpectedness that only the Wildcat really provided last season.
Finally, most of the credit for Williams' effectiveness this late in the game, is himself. If he's lost a step, it's a small one, because last season's production equalled anything he did six years ago. Though the sheer numbers aren't present, the ones he does put up are economical and exactly what the team needs from him. He's also the only back since Emmit Smith, Walter Payton, and OJ Anderson to have a thousand yard rushing season after turning 32.
Now he wants to stay in Miami another season. The NFL's mores would normally have Williams left wanting, but there's nothing really normal about Ricky Williams. That we're even having this discussion is baffling.
But considering the long, strange trip it's been, isn't there room for another season of Ricky?