Fate. Pure fate. At least that's what running back Ricky Williams
thought when he saw Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt and his
wife, Jan, at the New Orleans airport on the eve of the Super
Bowl. Oh my God, Williams remembers thinking. Why was the man who
Williams knew controlled his future in the NFL leaving town
before the Super Bowl kicked off? Wannstedt said he had only come
to New Orleans for a few social functions and was returning home,
but to Williams it was too odd. He was also heading to Miami, for
a connection to the Bahamas and a weekend in the sun. All he
could think was, We're on the same flight!
Williams, the New Orleans Saints' first-round pick in 1999, had
heard the rumors: The Dolphins might trade for him. Not that he
was eager to go anywhere. Truth be told, despite the dreads and
tattoos and bizarre behavior, he considered himself a throwback
player who'd be happy to finish his career with the team that
had drafted him. But if Wannstedt was going to be his new boss,
well, Williams wanted to get a feel for him--and Wannstedt
wanted to get to know Williams, too. "I knew he'd heard about
me," Williams said last Saturday. "Everyone in the league has.
Aloof. Eccentric. Weird. So we talked, about the Bahamas, about
their needs on offense, about how hard it was to make a trade. I
knew he was impressed with me. I told him I'd love to play in
Miami. He saw the fire in my eyes. Had I not seen him, I
honestly believe this trade would never have gone through. Never."
"No question that meeting helped our decision," Wannstedt says.
"After listening to him for 20 minutes, no one had to convince me
he was a good guy."
Now, five weeks to the day after that chance meeting, Williams
sat in his agent's Newport Beach, Calif., office suite
overlooking the Pacific. In the midst of a 48-hour chill-out
before reporting to his new team, he was both excited over last
Friday's blockbuster trade to Miami and bummed about leaving the
Saints. New Orleans, after all, was the team that traded an
entire draft and two high picks the following year to get him.
Last week Miami dealt first- and fourth-round selections for
Williams and got the Saints' fourth-rounder this year. The
Dolphins also agreed to send a conditional third-round choice to
New Orleans next year. The deal left Williams, 24, but with the
football resume of a man much older, shaking his head and
reaching for the right words. He settled on these:
"When I got drafted by New Orleans for all those picks, I was an
innocent bystander. I wasn't ready for the situation I stepped
into. But now, whether the Dolphins want me to just contribute to
the team or carry the team, I'm ready. I'm so ready."
Terry O'Neil, a Saints executive when Williams was drafted,
recalls what it was like the day the eye-popping trade with the
Washington Redskins was made. Williams was flown to New Orleans
on owner Tom Benson's jet, then whisked from the airport with a
police escort, "like the Pope was coming," says O'Neil. The
franchise that hadn't won a playoff game in its 32 seasons
finally had its savior.
All the attention Williams had received as a collegian--he won
the Heisman Trophy as a senior and left Texas as Division I's
alltime rushing leader--hadn't prepared him for the NFL
spotlight. During his rookie year he was extremely aloof, doing
interviews with his helmet on, ignoring almost every teammate
off the field. He has since had his condition diagnosed as
social anxiety disorder, and he's been under psychiatric care
and taking the antidepressant Paxil for nearly a year. "I
thought everyone was staring at me all the time," he says.
"Cameras and reporters always got too close. The stress skewed
my view of reality."
There was also the issue of Williams's weight. Cooling down
after his workout for scouts a month before the '99 draft,
Williams polished off 11 doughnuts. At a get-acquainted dinner
with the Saints that week, he put away four desserts. Little
wonder that the team insisted on a weight clause in the
contract. Turns out that was the least of the problems with the
deal that Williams would sign. A rookie agent, Leland Hardy,
wanted to hit the NFL jackpot, so he agreed to a market-smart
$8.8 million signing bonus, league-minimum salaries and
outlandishly high incentive levels (for example, $2.5 million if
Williams ran for 2,100 yards, which had been done once in 79
previous NFL seasons). In three seasons Williams has rushed for
a more than respectable 3,129 yards, yet in addition to the
signing bonus he has earned a total of only about $1.24 million.
(By comparison Edgerrin James, the player drafted immediately
ahead of Williams, has been paid $25.5 million in salary and
bonuses while running for 3,924 yards with the Indianapolis
Colts.) "My biggest regret about my time in New Orleans,"
Williams says, "is the agent I chose." After the '99 season he
switched to Leigh Steinberg, who wants to renegotiate the final
four years of the deal with Miami.
Williams might have to show more durability to get more money.
An ankle sprain, turf toe and a hyperextended elbow limited him
to 884 yards as a rookie. With 1,000 rushing yards in the first
10 games of 2000, Williams had the Saints on a six-game winning
streak, only to break his left ankle and miss the rest of the
Even without Williams the Saints stormed to their second
division title--and their first since 1991--then won their first
playoff game ever. They did it with a rookie coach, Jim Haslett,
who had replaced Mike Ditka, the man who had engineered the
trade and was arguably Williams's biggest fan. (When the Colts,
picking fourth, went for James, putting New Orleans in position
to swing the deal with Washington, Ditka shot out of his chair
in the Saints' draft room and yelled, "Yes! There is a God!")
After limping during practice for a game against the Atlanta
Falcons that October, Williams was told to see a club
orthopedist. Saying the leg was just sore, Williams skipped the
appointment; Haslett fined him $3,500. After Williams rushed for
156 yards in Atlanta, Haslett rescinded the fine. "That made me
madder," Williams says. "It showed he didn't trust me."
Williams's contract called for him to be docked $100,000 each
year he didn't make 90% of the team's off-season workouts and
another $25,000 if he reported to training camp weighing more
than 240. Both penalties were triggered in 2001. He ran for
1,245 yards and caught 60 passes, both career highs, but in
terms of base salary he was the club's 34th-highest-paid player,
at $389,000. Williams may have been the NFL's eighth-leading
rusher last season, but 47 tight ends earned more than he did.
Last month Williams lunched with Saints general manager Randy
Mueller and told him he wanted to be paid fairly. "The contract
was an issue [in the decision to trade Williams]," Mueller
admits. But he says a bigger factor was the Saints' desire for
more speed. "Our only player on offense with real speed was
[wideout] Joe Horn," he says. Deuce McAllister, whose
first-round selection last year raised eyebrows around the
league, carried only 16 times as a rookie, but one of those
carries was a 54-yard sprint against Atlanta; in 814 carries as
a Saint, Williams had one run of more than 26 yards, a 46-yarder
against the Carolina Panthers last season.
"The reason we didn't make many long runs is because our
receivers didn't block," Williams says. "It comes down to this:
I never felt appreciated by the new regime. I'm used to playing
for coaches who appreciate how I play, but this coach never
thought I was that good. I don't know why. I never bitch. If I
can walk, I'll play."
On Monday, Haslett said he was stunned to hear Williams's words.
"Some of the stuff Ricky says is crazy," he said. "I'm lost on
this. Lost. The only problem I had with Ricky was his fumbling.
He never felt appreciated? We made him 40 percent of the offense
last year and we didn't appreciate him? We built the offense
The Saints finished 7-9, and Haslett believes the best way to
get better is with multiple high draft picks. "We had two good
backs," he said, "and we have more needs than two backs can
fill." So Mueller and Dolphins vice president Rick Spielman
started talking at the Senior Bowl in January. The kicker: The
third-round choice in 2003 that New Orleans is due becomes a
second-rounder if Williams gains 1,200 yards this season, and a
first-rounder if he hits 1,500. The Saints, then, will be in the
position of being vilified by their fans if Williams--who had
become the city's biggest star--has a big year, yet knowing his
success would bring them an extra first-round pick.
The Saints can rag on Williams for his eccentricities, his speed
and his 20 fumbles, but they'll have to eat their words if the
man with Popeye arms and piston legs racks up three or four
straight 1,200-yard seasons.
"We paid a whole draft, and more, for him," Ditka said on
Saturday. "But do I have any regrets? I don't. We were all on
the same page in the organization, and we made the deal. I know
people around the league think I'm stupid for doing it. You
know, f--- them. I don't care what they think. New Orleans will
never know what it could have had."
Last Friday, Williams took one more ride through the French
Quarter, where he has a two-bedroom apartment. He will have a
heavy heart about what happened in New Orleans, but not for
long. "The Saints have given me tons of motivation to tear it
up," he says. "And the stage is so perfectly set."
He's right about that. Ever since the Dolphins lost Larry Csonka
to the World Football League in 1974, they've been looking for a
mail carrier. They found Tony Nathan and Karim Abdul-Jabbar and
Sammie Smith and Lamar Smith, but never Mr. Right. In the past
28 seasons they've had only three 1,000-yard rushers. "What's
great for Ricky about Miami is the grass field, which will help
his ankles," says Ditka. "He can take that team to the Super
Playing for Wannstedt and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner,
both big fans of a workhorse back, Williams knows he could be in
store for a 330-carry season. "They're this close," he says. "I
think a running game would have put them over the top last year.
This is probably the best situation for me."
Miami fans hope that proves to be the case. While attending the
Honda Classic last Saturday, Wannstedt saw several Dolphins
jerseys already emblazoned with 34 and WILLIAMS. When some fans
saw Wannstedt, they chanted, "Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!"
"People here are starving for an offensive hero, especially with
Danny [Marino] gone," Wannstedt says. "They're going nuts. Ricky
has no idea what he's walking into."
Yes he does.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Impasse Management questioned Williams's speed, but he says the Saints' receivers weren't blocking downfield.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER
Ricky Williams is the seventh running back since 1970 to be
taken in the top 10 in the draft, have at least one 1,000-yard
year and be traded before his sixth NFL season. The Dolphins can
only hope that Williams enjoys the kind of success that has been
found by the likes of Eric Dickerson (left) and other stars who
switched jerseys. --David Sabino
PLAYER DRAFTED BY (SELECTION) TRADED TO, YEAR
AFTER THE TRADE
Chuck Muncie Saints, 1976 (3) Chargers, 1980
Rushed for 1,144 yards in '81 and led NFL with 19 touchdowns
Ricky Bell Bucs, 1976 (1) Chargers, 1982
Afflicted with rare skin and muscle disorders, played in only
four games; died in 1984
George Rogers Saints, 1981 (1) Redskins, 1985
Washington's top rusher in each of his three years, including
1987 Super Bowl season
Eric Dickerson Rams, 1983 (2) Colts, 1987
Led league in rushing in '88, with 1,659 yards; 1999 NFL Hall of
Jerome Bettis Rams, 1993 (10) Steelers, 1996
Has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of six seasons with
Marshall Faulk Colts, 1994 (2) Rams, 1999
Named NFL MVP in 2000 after scoring league-record 26 touchdowns
"The Saints have given me tons of motivation to tear it up,"
Williams says of the trade.