KAPALUA, Hawaii -- The early morning sunlight is coming off the Pacific and we are sitting on the veranda of the Banyan Tree restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton overlooking the ocean, listening to Nick Saban plant some outrageous lies about Ricky Williams. This is the AFC coaches breakfast session at the NFL spring meetings, and I am interested in spending time with Saban, who has been hired to bring the Dolphins back into a state of grace.
Years ago when Saban was a defensive coach for the Browns, we had sat in his office for a good hour and a half talking defense and strategy and theory. And when it was over he mentioned that he really enjoyed the chance to talk nothing but pure football. But when someone questioned him at Wednesday's gathering about his ban on his assistant coaches talking to the media, he said that as an assistant he had always hated talking to the press.
"I felt that I could only say something wrong, something the head coach didn't want me to say," he said. "It was like torture for me."
Naturally Saban didn't remember me, and I said, in my usually tactful way, that if I'd have known it was such torture, I'd have cut the conversation off early -- but the sarcasm was lost. Then he began doing his Ricky Williams number which seemed to have been, remarkably, taken at its face value by most of his audience.
"If Williams were committed to coming back and being a productive player," Saban said, "... well, I've discussed this with some of the leaders of the team, and I think he'd be welcome."
"There were guys who said they'd never forgive him," someone said.
"And my wife told me once, 'I'll never talk to you again,'" Saban said.
And on and on. There's no way a coach, even a new one, could be so naïve about a guy who had walked out on his team in such an ugly fashion. So here's the deal: Williams will be gone. But it's silly to let him get away for nothing.
Maybe there's someone in the NFL, an Al Davis spawn or something, who feels he can work magic with this enigmatic star and would be willing to part with draft choices or players in a trade. But not if he thought Williams would be coming loose and he could get him for nothing.
So Saban must continue to talk it up on Williams' behalf to get the price up. But I'll tell you right now ... there's no way under God's blue sky that Williams will ever set foot in a Dolphins locker room again. He knows it. We know it. Everyone knows it.
What a fancy place, this Ritz-Carlton is. Personally I have trouble, when someone asks me where I'm staying, to reply Ritz-anything. At least not without the proper dress for it ... straw boater and spats, perhaps. But gosh, the place is simply magnificent, and it has a very professional catering manager named John Anderson who knows what you want before you know it yourself.
Some of the excesses, however, are a little over the top. "BATH MENU -- Pamper yourself with a butler drawn bath," read the sign in the bathroom. "Ka Au'au Pili Aloha (The Romance Bath). Enjoy a romantic bath by candlelight ... includes milk, whey powder, lavender bath oil, rose petals and a split of Champagne." Butler drawn baths cost $50. "They may be personally drawn by our bath butler or delivered as an amenity."
The first major headline of the owners meetings involved Paul Tagliabue's admonition to the Players Association to shape up and don't try to delay the bargaining process for a new contract, which would take effect in 2008. Typical talk from a gentleman whose background is that of a union-busting corporate lawyer. The union is merely a bystander right now as the major conflict throughout these meetings involved revenue sharing.
Jerry Jones vs. Mike Brown, rich Cowboys vs. poor Bengals, and the various counterparts of each. How do we cut the pie so the imbalance isn't too great? And when it's all worked out, then the league bargains with the union to determine the percentage of the gross, which determines the salary cap.
That's the way it's always gone, but it's convenient to make some sort of early scapegoat out of the union. It's in keeping with the times. We live in an anti-union era, so why not cash in on it? Which Tagliabue is only to eager to do.
I had to laugh at the Roy Williams rule, which has been tabled until May when it will be passed, we are assured. It says that a tackler can't grab someone by the shoulder pads from behind and yank him to the ground "immediately" as the Cowboys safety did to Terrell Owens last season, putting him out of commission for four games. The film study showed this to be a dangerous practice, but tell me, please, exactly how are you supposed to grab a guy from behind?
Tacklers downfield are supposed to bring a runner down any way they can, I've always been taught. And how about that "immediately" thing? Are they supposed to hold the reins on him for 10 yards or so, like a coachman trying to control a wild stallion, and then ease him to the ground?
The league passed a rule outlawing the peel-back block. If a blocker drifts outside the tackle-to-tackle box and then comes back in on the side of a defender's knee, it's a penalty. But not if he stays inside and similarly takes him out at the side of the knee -- a dangerous, vicious practice that, strangely, still remains within the rules.
So yours truly turned on the automatic record machine, and in the polly-want-a-cracker style I've been croaking to the Competition Committee for at least 20 years, began my litany: "Simple rule, no cutting unless you're face up. Simple rule, no cutting unless you're face up," until everyone got tired of it and told me to shut up.
Why is it so difficult for the league to understand that you don't mess with the side or the back of the knees, no matter what angle you're coming from? But they move against this technique in tiny little one-inch steps. Hey fellas, simple rule, no cutting unless you're face up. Simple rule, etc.
Kudos to the Committee and the coaches, though, for voting in a strict interpretation of unnecessary roughness. Thus a hit such as the famous Warren Sapp crippling shot on Chad Clifton a few years ago, which was within the rules at the time, will now be flagged because it's not necessary to the play and just plain nasty besides.
Pass-interference penalties and the like will remain the huge game-changers that they are today. A 15-yard interference penalty, as they have in college, was turned down. Tony Dungy, whose Colts have the most dynamic passing game in the business, agrees with the decision. "It would be like fouling Shaquille O'Neal every time he has the ball," he says. Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, said it would encourage a whole bunch of flagrant downfield fouls.
What no one explained to me was why the college game hasn't been cluttered with a bunch of deliberate interference penalties. And why the NFL would be any different.
The rule that I thought really had a chance -- an illegal chuck or defensive holding penalty would be treated as an offside call, five yards but no automatic first down, -- likewise was shot down. So we will have the same ugly phenomenon -- on third-and-20, for instance, a brush foul or very minor chuck buys a cheap first down. Fooey!
If either Saban at Miami or Romeo Crennel at Cleveland becomes a winner, then Bill Belichick will have achieved something Vince Lombardi never did -- having an assistant coach in his system become a successful head coach. Take a look at the roster of Lombardi assistants and, for some odd reason, you'll find nothing but failure -- Phil Bengtson, Bill Austin, Norb Hecker and so on.
Belichick played in the Pro Am golf tournament at Pebble Beach. And how did he feel about the professional golfers?
"I told these guys," he said, " 'Hit a bad shot and nobody says anything. Hit a good one and everybody cheers. It's not like you're down 21-3 at the half and you come off the field and everybody's booing. You guys don't know what real negativity is.'"
Reminds me of my favorite Raymond Berry quote, when he was coach of the Patriots. Someone took him to hear a concert by the Boston Pops Orchestra, and afterward Berry was asked what he thought of it.
"Wonderful," he said, "and the best thing about it was that they let them play. There was no one hitting them in the head, trying to disrupt their concentration."
"Worst senior class in the 30 years I've been scouting," says one personnel man. "The juniors are a little better, but this is a draft without a super star." Which is why there are quite a few teams, including Miami, that want to trade down from the high spots, but very few that want to move up and pay the big money for an elite pick.
"Here's a new trick the college players and their agents are figuring out," says another personnel guy. "Work on a different skill for each of the showcase workouts. So, for instance, they might do a lot of heavy lifting before the Combine workout, but very little speed work. They'll go down as strong but slow. But then for, say, their pro day at their school, they'll lighten themselves and work on running, because that's all they'll be doing there, so they'll get their times down in the 40. It's gonna make a ton of money for them."
Hottest name right now is Georgia defensive end David Pollack. At least we think he's a DE. He weighs 276. Matt Millen of the Lions sees him as a strongside inside backer in a 3-4. Others see Pollack as a quick, John Randle-type interior rusher, or an outside rusher, or an outside LB. Maybe he'll count as two or three picks in the draft.
New threat to watch for in the Colts' offense this season: tight end Bryan Fletcher. "We had so many tight ends that he just didn't get a chance," Dungy says, "but when we played San Diego and he was Antonio Gates during the week, we couldn't cover him."
My favorite player in the draft is USC middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Tough at the point, great coverage instincts. Not as fast as we'd like, say the scouts. I don't care. I love him as a pure football player. Remember his dad, Mosi Tatupu, with the Patriots? Seldom a starter, but a great back-up fullback and special teamer.
Marv Goux, the defensive-line coach at Southern Cal, was once asked how you determine a guy's qualifications to make it in the NFL. "Get a profile of Mosi Tatupu," he said.
A chart from the San Francisco Chronicle weather page from March 18 (we stopped off in San Francisco on the way to Maui) was headed, Earthquake Week. This Week: 104 earthquakes (that's statewide). Last Week: 89. And you wonder why we live in Jersey.