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 Mississippi running 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 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
"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."
Instead of overloading Vick with the entire game plan and making
him the starter early on, Reeves is giving the young quarterback
six to 10 plays to study and perfect in practice, and then
letting him run those plays in that week's game. In addition,
Reeves wants to make sure that Vick gets to the line of scrimmage
with about 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.
"We used to send the play out to John, and he'd have to absorb
it, then call it in the huddle and go to the line," says Reeves.
"By then four seconds might have been left on the play clock.
He'd be in a rush just to get the play off. With Michael, he gets
the play called and gets to the line with plenty of time to look
at the defense and consider his options."
Vick is still rushing through his progressions too quickly, not
giving his first and sometimes second receiver time to get open.
Still, the Falcons think he has broken the habit he had at
Virginia Tech of running at the first sign of pressure.
Building the Browns
Davis Follows Jimmy's Formula
The biggest misconception about Ol' Trader Jimmy Johnson was that
he was smarter than everyone else in the NFL when it came to
evaluating college talent. Johnson, however, had his share of
gaffes in nine drafts as coach of the Cowboys and the Dolphins.
He was big on volume, though, because he knew that if he had a
dozen picks in a seven-round draft, his chances of finding four
or five keepers increased markedly.
New Browns coach Butch Davis was a Johnson assistant in Dallas,
and he became a disciple of Johnson's philosophy. In the days
before this season's final roster cut-down, Davis picked up
extra fourth, sixth- and seventh-round selections in 2002 by
trading five backups (most notably quarterback Ty Detmer, who
went to the Lions for the fourth-round pick). Davis is not done.
He's trying to deal underachieving starting wideout Kevin
Johnson to the Saints, Chiefs or Eagles. Philadelphia
quarterback Donovan McNabb, who played with Johnson at Syracuse,
has encouraged coach Andy Reid to acquire the Cleveland
receiver, a second-round choice in 1999.
"Going through that experience with Jimmy gave me the confidence
that this was the right way to build a team," says Davis, who
took over in Cleveland after coaching the University of Miami for
six seasons. "What I noticed in my first draft, though, was that
picks have become like gold on draft day. You just can't get 'em.
So we're trying to get the extra picks now."
Whistle While You Work?
At the Chiefs-Raiders game on Sunday, one replacement official
shook the hand of Oakland wide receiver Jerry Rice and told him
it was an honor to work one of his games. During the
Chargers-Redskins game, Washington defensive end Bruce Smith
complained to replacement ref Jim Sprenger about cheap shots;
according to Smith, Sprenger replied, "You play, and I'll
officiate. If you get hurt, you get hurt." In the Bills-Saints
game, the replacements marked off four- and six-yard penalties.
Overall, the rule of thumb among the replacements during one
weekend of preseason games and one Sunday of the regular season
seems to be, When in doubt, call nothing. Last year an average of
12.7 penalties were flagged per regular-season game. In the final
preseason weekend, the replacements averaged 9.6 penalties. On
Sunday they averaged 9.9. "That's fine with us," New Orleans
wideout Joe Horn said, after four infractions had been stepped
off against each team in his game. "Let us play. They'll miss
some, but they'll miss them on both sides."
Most important, from the league's standpoint, no games on Sunday
were decided by blown calls. Ownership appears to be rock-solid
in its hard-line stance in negotiations with the regular
officials. After the officials rejected the NFL's latest offer
of a 150% raise over five years, the league yanked the offer off
the table last weekend and replaced it with a 75% increase over
"This game's overofficiated anyway," says Bills owner Ralph
Wilson. "You see as many flags at our games as they have at
parades down Broadway. As far as I'm concerned, we can use the
new guys all season."
My Two Cents
1. The NFL's top scorer this season will be Tennessee kicker Joe
Nedney, who's on his sixth team at the ripe age of 28. He's the
sure thing that former Titan Al Del Greco once was--with a range
eight yards longer.
2. Best rookie runner in 2001: Vikings back Michael Bennett, who
will gain 1,400 yards. Best rookie defender: Rams tackle Damione
Lewis, who will get 12 sacks. Best rookie, period: Bucs left
tackle Kenyatta Walker, who will become running back Warrick
Dunn's best friend. Quickly.
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Williams ran for 88 yards in the second half, when New Orleans outscored Buffalo 24-0.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The elusive Vick used his legs to lead the Falcons to a third-quarter field goal.
the football Beat
With new Raider Jerry Rice (left), who turns 39 next month
SI: Silver and black.
Rice: Nasty. Mean. I like it.
SI: Raiders offense.
Rice: Spectacular. I'm running routes I haven't run in five or
six years--the deep comeback, some digs. The new stuff stimulates
my mind. I'm like a rookie again.
SI: Getting fired.
Rice: It happened to Joe Montana and some of the other guys in
San Francisco. So why not me?
Rice: It's never been about the stats. Whenever I said I wanted
the ball two or three more times a game, it was taken the wrong
way, like I was selfish. It's not selfishness. It's me thinking
I can make big plays with the ball in my hands.
Rice: I met Cal Ripken at Camden Yards this summer. He came
walking off the field toward me, and I got nervous. I'm
thinking, Oh, my God! Cal! He's an idol. I asked him, "Has it
hit you about retiring?" He was cool with it. He's ready to go.
SI: Left to prove.
Rice: Nothing at all.... Maybe one thing--that it's never been
about the records. It's for the love of the game, and I'm not
ready to leave it.
Broncos quarterback Brian Griese versus Colts quarterback Peyton
The first meeting between the two most accomplished quarterbacks
from the past five drafts--the No. 1 (Manning) and No. 91
(Griese) picks in 1998--is next Sunday at the RCA Dome. Few
would argue that Griese is better than Manning, who in three
seasons has averaged nearly 300 more passing yards a year than
Dan Marino did in his first three. Yet Griese, who has an
average arm but plays nearly error-free, is perfect for the
Denver system. Entering the season his career passer rating
(86.5) was a point higher than Manning's, and their completion
percentages (.604) were identical. What counts is the coaching
and players around a quarterback, plus his makeup--not how high
Sept. 16, 1950: Upstart Browns stun NFL champion Eagles 35-10
Cleveland had won four consecutive All-America Football
Conference titles before joining two other AAFC teams in a
merger with the NFL. Convinced that the Browns were a minor
league outfit, NFL commissioner Bert Bell, the former Eagles
owner and coach, scheduled Cleveland to play defending champion
Philadelphia, at night in Philly, to open the 1950 season. "With
the image the AAFC had at the time," says Pro Football Hall of
Fame archivist Joe Horrigan, "it was like the XFL champ playing
the Super Bowl champ." In this case, however, coach Paul Brown's
club had an advantage in quarterback Otto Graham, who passed for
346 yards. "I remember two things," says Browns receiver Dante
Lavelli. "We had two touchdowns called back and should have won
by more, and we couldn't get anything to eat after the game. So
the Browns fans at our hotel opened their doors to us and fed us."
One AFC scout who watched two Colts preseason games liked what
he saw of 38-year-old backup quarterback Mark Rypien, who left
the game three years ago to deal with the illness and subsequent
death of his three-year-old son, Andrew. "It's amazing how
quickly the rust has come off," the scout says. "He's shown
excellent accuracy, he has some mobility left and he knows what
to do when the pressure comes. He looks better than most
Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila made quite an impact
in his first start, with three sacks and two pressures of Lions
quarterback Charlie Batch in Green Bay's 28-6 win.
Gbaja-Biamila, whose name means "big man come and save me" in
Nigerian, is a second-year player out of San Diego State....
Trent Green completed 16 of 37 passes in his first game as a
Chief, a 27-24 loss to the Raiders, but only three were caught
by wideouts. "For us to win," coach Dick Vermeil said, "our
receivers have to separate better."...
The Steelers were smart last week to lock up wideout Hines Ward
with a four-year, $10 million contract extension. Although Ward
is basically a possession receiver, Pittsburgh knows that the
expansion Texans will have tons of money to spend on free agents
and a shrinking pool of quality talent to choose from before it
begins play next year. To Houston, Ward might have been worth $4
million a year....
Of the 44 plays the Cowboys ran in a 10-6 loss to the
Buccaneers, only 19 gained yards....
What an amazing opener for Jaguars wideout Jimmy Smith, who'd
had intestinal surgery three times in the past 5 1/2 months:
eight catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-3 win
over the Steelers.