This time last year Ricky Williams had announced his retirement, blowing off the 2004 season to wander the world and eventually wind up in a California school for holistic healing. But here's how he fared in his five-game return to football reality this preseason: 30 carries, 126 yards, 4.2 yards per rush, six catches for 26 yards, one impressed coach.
"I was pleasantly surprised by everything the guy did this summer," said first-year Dolphins coach Nick Saban, who notes that Williams was happy to have rookie Ronnie Brown start the preseason finale in his place. "He's been a pleasure to be around in every way. Now the key is that we manage the next four or five weeks well so he doesn't regress and comes back ready to play."
On Monday, Williams began serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy that came to light last summer. Because Miami has a bye in Week 4, he won't resume practicing with the team until Oct. 10 and won't play until Oct. 16 at Tampa Bay. That leaves Saban, who loves to run the ball, with a pretty big hole in his backfield as the Dolphins get ready to face four teams with good run defenses: Denver (fourth in the NFL against the run in 2004), the Jets (fifth), Carolina (17th, but with All-Pro run-stuffer Kris Jenkins recovered from a shoulder injury) and Buffalo (seventh).
The big question is whether Brown, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, can handle the job of every-down back, a role he filled for only a six-game stretch in his sophomore year at Auburn. Over that span the 6-foot, 232-pound Brown averaged 24 carries and 139 rushing yards a game. However, in his junior and senior seasons, during which he shared playing time with Cadillac Williams (also a 2005 first-round pick, by the Buccaneers), Brown never had more than 16 carries in a game. Asked if Brown, who held out until Aug. 14 and had only 11 carries in the preseason, is ready to rush 25 times a game, the Miami coach said he wasn't. "That wouldn't be our plan," Saban said. "He's played 20 plays or so in [each of] the last two preseason games, and we'll continue to increase his workload."
That means backup Sammy Morris will get playing time and shifty Travis Minor will be sent in on third down. But the bottom line is that if Brown can't carry the load and pick up good yardage against those first four solid opponents, the Nick Saban Reclamation Project could start out 0-4.
RAMS' KEVIN CURTIS
On a Mission of A Different Sort
Kevin Curtis, a skinny 21-year-old from Utah, was returning from a two-year Mormon mission to England in 2000 and had a layover in the St. Louis airport. A former wideout at Snow Junior College in Utah, he hadn't watched TV in the two years that he'd been out of the U.S. As he wandered through the terminal, he stopped at a store that was playing a video of the Rams' Super Bowl win over the Titans six months earlier. The Rams? Curtis remembers thinking. They were horrible when I left home! How'd they win the Super Bowl? And who is Kurt Warner? "When you're so far out of it, like I was on my mission," he says, "your mind is blown when you see something like that."
Now it's Curtis who could provide a mind-blowing experience, as one of the NFL's breakout players this year. A third-round pick out of Utah State by St. Louis in 2003, he struggled with injuries in his first two seasons--a broken leg in '03 and shin splints last year limited him to a total of 36 receptions--but he's healthy now and will be the Rams' No. 3 receiver, behind starters Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
Coach Mike Martz hopes the speedy Curtis (4.33 in the 40) can provide the downfield impact and productivity of Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl in years past. Martz was thrilled with Curtis's preseason performance: 234 receiving yards (third in the league) and 21.3 yards per catch (tops among all receivers with at least 10 catches). "Kevin's a lightning bolt," Martz says. "He continues to do amazing things for us. He's almost on a par with Isaac and Torry, and he's better after the catch. The great thing he's going to do for us is outrun coverage and stretch the field."
Now that he has mastered Martz's playbook, Curtis says, he's ready to be an impact player. "In this offense you're thinking so much at first that you can't just let your ability take over," Curtis says. "Now I feel I know it well enough to just go out and make plays without thinking."
Amazing but true: As of the cutdown to 53-man rosters last Saturday, the Eagles were $12.6 million under the league's $85.5 million salary cap for 2005. That's almost $5 million lower than the second team on the list, the Texans ($7.8 million under). Aided by the $5.1 million it saved by removing the franchise tag from defensive tackle Corey Simon and setting him free, Philadelphia wants to re-sign several key players to long-term deals (including running back Brian Westbrook and kicker David Akers) and be active in free agency next year.... Arizona's a chic NFC West pick, but the Cards will have to improve on an abysmal running game. Starter J.J. Arrington, the rookie from Cal, carried five times for seven yards last Friday night, despite running behind the first-team line against Denver's second-string defense.... The Lions lost their quarterback insurance when free-agent pickup Jeff Garcia broke his left leg on Friday night against the Bills, leaving Connecticut rookie Dan Orlovsky as the backup to Joey Harrington at week's end. "The quarterback situation hasn't changed a lot from last year," downcast coach Steve Mariucci said on Saturday. "Joey's played every game for the last two years." Which, obviously, is why the Lions had put so much stock into getting a better backup this year.