Let's assume, since agent Leigh Steinberg has never told a fib in his life, except for the old whopper about not recruiting college players, that Ricky Williams really does want to return to the NFL. The erstwhile tailback and holistic healer-in-training is serious about resuming the lucrative career he abandoned 11 months ago.
And let's assume, too, that all those reports about Williams tipping the scales at 195 pounds, apparently soaking wet, are legitimate.
Seems that if Point A is accurate and Point B isn't just a fuzzy fabrication Williams conjured up in some purple haze-induced e-mail to Mike Silver of Sports Illustrated, then we've got a weighty Point C, for Conundrum, on our hands here, folks.
Think about this: For Williams to suddenly be in compliance with the league's substance abuse program, the one in which he has tested positive at least three times, he has to lay off the demon weed, right? But for Ricky the Rasta Man to gain back the 30 pounds that he dropped during his football hiatus, he might sorely require the kind of munchies attack that we're told ganja can induce.
Oh my, it is the knottiest of problems, indeed. Can the once-powerful Williams bulk up again without lighting up? Will he be able to feed his face without feeding his habit? Can he swear off tokin' for toting a football for the Miami Dolphins again, and will he even be physically capable, given his relatively emaciated state?
OK, so we're not attempting to make light here (pardon the intentional pun) of Williams' lack of bulk. Maybe, as his various mouthpieces have suggested, Williams can add back the 30 pounds he left floating in the Ganges River just like that. The point: He'd better, since a 195-pound tailback is the NFL equivalent of a 98-pound weakling sunning himself on the beach. The only good news for Williams is that, if he continues to wear a visor on his helmet, linebackers can't kick sand in his face.
Then, again, if Williams returns to the field at 195 pounds, a shaky shadow of his once-robust self, linebackers will take glee in kicking a much lower portion of his anatomy.
Here is a true fact: The average weight of the 32 starting tailbacks in the NFL last season was 217.8 pounds. Only half of the 32 starters dented the scales at less than 220 pounds. Extending the point one step further, the average tonnage of the top two tailbacks on the 32 rosters was 219.9 pounds. And how many of the 64 tailbacks who were either first or second on depth charts in 2004 checked in at less than 200 pounds? That would be exactly two: Atlanta Falcons star Warrick Dunn (180 pounds) and Charlie Garner of Tampa Bay (190 pounds). The New York Giants' marvelous Tiki Barber, at 200 pounds, was the only other back under 205 pounds.
Last time we checked, all three were noted more for their quickness than their power, although Dunn and Barber in particular are deceptively strong inside runners. As for Ricky Williams? Well, not especially quick, at least in the humble estimation of several of the defenders who spent five seasons playing a flattened Wile E. Coyote to Williams' bulldozer-piloting Road Runner.
"I always thought [Williams] was a back who could run past you," Buffalo linebacker Takeo Spikes said, "but who preferred to run over you."
But at 195 pounds, the weight reported by Williams himself, there will be very little running over anybody at the NFL level. In its most quintessential form, especially for a running back, football is a contact sport. For most 195-pound tailbacks, it becomes a catastrophic undertaking instead, unless you've got some wiggle. For five years, Williams was about walloping people, not wiggling past them.
When you've been a power runner for all your football life, age 28 is a little late to try to perfect the fine art of finesse. And so Williams whose weight ranged from a high of 236 pounds from 1999 to 2001 to 228 pounds in 2003, according to the NFL's annual Fact & Record Book had better start quaffing down those industrial-sized protein shakes.
In his now-celebrated e-mail missive to Silver, who needs to get Williams to the nearest sushi bar, the prodigal running back suggested he has two seasons and 4,000 yards left in him. There have been five men in NFL history who have rushed for 2,000 yards in a year, and the average weight of the quintet in the season they notched that feat was 214.4 pounds. Three words of wisdom: Start eating, Ricky.
Over the last 10 seasons, the average weight of the league's rushing champion was 211.8 pounds. Not since Charles White led the NFL in the 1987 strike season at a wispy 190 pounds has there been a league rushing champion of less than 200 pounds. We reiterate: Start eating, Ricky, and don't stop until you've consumed mass quantities.
Of course, even if Williams packs on the pounds, there are a ton of other factors that could scuttle his proposed return.
Since he can't return to the league until late July, Williams will have missed all of the Dolphins' offseason program. With a new coach in Nick Saban, there is a new offense to assimilate, and as best we can determine, Williams has yet to lay eyes on the 2005 edition of the Miami playbook. Assuming Williams plays in the preseason opener, the Hall of Fame game against Chicago on Aug. 8, it will have been 619 days between carries. A lot of oxidation can collect on a body in what amounts to 20 months of relative inertia. Williams still owes the Dolphins $8.6 million and owes the league a four-game suspension. And there are already indications the two sides might not be able to reach a speedy agreement on Williams' compensation for 2005.
Those are, even if Williams appears for training camp in late July resembling a sculpted Adonis, a lot of hurdles to navigate, a lot of hoops through which to jump. Which means, despite all the rhetoric and teasing, the return of Ricky Williams to the NFL remains little more than a hash-pipe dream for now.
Around the league
• There's a decent chance the Washington Redskins won't be penalized at all for a recent practice incident that has come under review by the NFL Players Association. But in unwittingly calling attention to some potentially illegal practice activities via streaming video on the club's own Web site the Redskins demonstrated once again that they are, indeed, the Capital Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
See, guys, this is what happens when you try to produce news yourself. Seems that, in their ongoing battle with the local media (particularly The Washington Post, a newspaper with which the franchise was once very cozy but an outlet that has fallen out of favor with ownership), the 'Skins recently decided their team-owned Web site should break all the news on the franchise. In a move approved, in part, by coach Joe Gibbs, the club enhanced its site and trumpeted the addition of "exclusive" streaming video from offseason practices. But in its ardor to break news, Washington might have produced evidence that it broke a rule.
On a very slow news day not too long ago, we actually logged on to watch what the Web site host called the "compelling sights and sounds" of a practice session. Yep, pretty compelling stuff all right, watching some standard passing drills. At any rate, we apparently weren't the only stiffs bored enough to tune in. An official from the NFLPA was watching one day and spied a one-on-one blocking drill between offensive and defensive linemen. As Gibbs noted, just about every team in the league uses a similar drill in mini-camps and so-called "organized team activities." The only problem is, the drills are banned beyond a certain (albeit somewhat arbitrary) level of contact, and not everyone else around the league is inclined to broadcast their quiet practice indiscretions on the Web site owned and operated by the club. And so the Redskins are now under scrutiny. Hey, you can't make this stuff up, you know? But as long as the Redskins are around, we don't have to, because they keep providing more than enough fodder. Gibbs suggested that he didn't fully understand the rule banning the drill, further evidence that perhaps the Hall of Fame coach should have stayed in a NASCAR pit instead of relocating to an NFL sideline.
In fairness to the Redskins, even their own players, including the union representative, are siding with the club in insisting the drills were benign. So maybe Washington will avoid even a slap on the wrist from the league and the NFLPA. Once again, though, the team was victim of its own pettiness. And once again it demonstrated that, even as poorly as some Redskins folks perform their assigned chores, they still need to just tend to their day jobs.
• In a related matter, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, who also airs his practices on the team's Web site, Thursday halted a drill because he felt it might be construed as violating rules governing the offseason workouts. The Cardinals were only a few snaps into what the Arizona staff terms the "push drill" when Green stepped in and stopped it. The drill, it should be noted, was a part of Arizona's mini-camp last month. But in the wake of the Redskins incident, it seems, Green opted to err on the side of caution. And with good reason. Last year, the Cardinals were forced to forfeit a full week of spring workouts when players complained about the intensity and the league and NFLPA ruled Arizona was in violation of workout guidelines. Green, whose team is suddenly a chic pick in the woeful NFC West by some pundits who are offering early predictions, wasn't about to get nailed a second time.
• In a move that will raise the ire of agents, past NFLPA president Trace Armstrong has asked the union's agent disciplinary committee to study the effect of reducing maximum commissions from 3 percent to 2 percent. The current maximum fee of 3 percent that agents can earn on negotiated contracts already is the lowest in professional sports. In the NBA, agents can collect up to 4 percent. There is no ceiling in Major League Baseball or in the NHL. As is typically the case in NFLPA-related matters, the study was floated quietly, and most agents only recently discovered the potential move to a lower fee. Armstrong told the Sports Business Journal the change is being considered because "a number of players see that [NFL] revenue has increased and salaries have increased, while the role of the agent has not increased, and the agent has not had a direct role in those increases."
Uh, come again, Trace? At the risk of providing more ammunition to the critics who contend we deal too much with the agent community, that kind of rationale is absurd. No offense to the ol' rank-and-file, many of whom are smart guys, but does anyone really think most players are capable of negotiating their own contracts? Of comprehending the intricacies of elements such as, say, the Deion Sanders Rule? Or even something as seemingly simple as, oh, deferred payments? The agent industry already is plenty tawdry enough. Reducing the maximum fee, Armstrong doesn't seem to grasp, will only invite more abuses. And, it should be noted, the current 3 percent fee is only the maximum commission allowed. If a player wants to pay less, then he can bargain for a lower fee. There are plenty of agents out there, recent history suggests, willing to cut fees in order to solicit more business. Even some team negotiators noted this week that they would have problems because more players might attempt to do deals on their own, which could open a Pandora's box.
"At first blush," said one club official who is involved in contract negotiations, "it might seem great. You know, being able to maybe put one over on a player, who might not be as versed in the rules as an agent. But two years later, when that player is banging on your door because there is something in his contract he didn't know was there, or that he feels you didn't adequately explain to him, and then you've got trouble. Nah, as much as I detest dealing with some agents, it's still better than the alternative."
In essence, the players, already seeking a bigger piece of the pie in negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement extension, want a bigger piece of the bigger piece, apparently. And don't think the idea of reduced fees just suddenly occurred to Armstrong, who has been succeeded as president by Buffalo Bills cornerback Troy Vincent. For years, when NFLPA officials have visited training camps and locker rooms, they have quietly whispered to players that they are paying too much to agents. Make no mistake: NFL agents aren't nearly as powerful as some of their peers in other sports. A group of NBA agents, for instance, recently stepped in to scuttle a potential deal between the league and its players' union. But if the NFLPA moves forward and tries to cut the commissions, things are going to get pretty heated.
• Flip back through the ol' mental in-box to about five months ago, when the New Orleans Saints announced that, despite a fourth straight season without a playoff appearance, the team was not only retaining embattled head coach Jim Haslett but was prepared to negotiate a contract extension for him. Remember that? Well, if you do, you have a better memory, apparently, than Saints officials. The extension, which was widely reported to be for two years, still isn't completed. In fact, the stop-and-start negotiations have been largely stopped of late.
OK, so no one need organize a telethon for Haslett, who has two seasons remaining on his existing contract and isn't going to starve. But if Saints owner Tom Benson, currently embroiled in a stadium standoff, is going to hold the state of Louisiana to the misguided deal former Gov. Mike Foster negotiated in 2001 (one that pays the team $186 million in subsidies over 10 years), shouldn't he keep his word, too, on the Haslett extension? That's not meant as a slam at Benson, who, as noted in this space in the past, is a guy we like a lot. But no one put a gun to his head after he and Haslett and general manager Mickey Loomis completed their evaluation of the '04 season and compelled him to announce the planned extension for his head coach.
Then again, given the uncertainty of the Saints' situation, maybe Haslett is better off without the extension. Truth be told, Haslett is more highly regarded around the league than the 43-39 record he has forged in five seasons might indicate. Yeah, the Saints have been an incredibly underachieving team at times during Haslett's tenure, but he is viewed in favor by a lot of general managers. So maybe the best thing Haslett can do is guide the Saints to a playoff berth in 2005, enhance his own standing in the league and then try to bolt a franchise that probably wouldn't bar the front door if he attempted to leave.
• The teams that have met with free-agent linebacker Peter Boulware (the Browns and Texans to date), seem a bit more concerned about his physical condition than originally thought. After Boulware visited with Cleveland officials Thursday, it's clear GM Phil Savage has reservations about where Boulware is physically at this point in his rehabilitation from knee and toe injuries that sidelined him all of 2004. That the Browns let Boulware out of the building without making him a contract offer, permitting him to move on to his visit with the Seattle Seahawks, represents a red flag of sorts. You'd think, given their situation at linebacker, the Browns would have made an offer to anyone with a pulse. The conventional thinking now is Boulware will end up in Seattle, where younger brother Michael is the starting strong safety.
• Lost in the wake of the uproar over the videotape that hastened San Francisco public relations director Kirk Reynolds' departure this week, is a very solid 49ers move that flew a bit under the radar screen. The team signed offensive lineman Eric Heitmann to what amounted to a three-year contract extension through the 2008 season. The deal could pay Heitmann, a very good if underrated player who has started for three years at guard, as much as $6.5 million, and it included a $1.5 million signing bonus.
The significance of the extension? The 49ers' brass knows the return of standout center Jeremy Newberry, who underwent knee surgery last month, remains uncertain. Under the best-case scenario, it's no better than 50-50 that Newberry, a two-time Pro Bowl blocker, plays in 2005 or ever again. Heitmann has been working at center and could end up being the long-term solution there. If Newberry does return, then it just means that San Francisco moves Heitmann back to guard, where it would have a solid player under contract for four more years, and at a very palatable price.
• Latest rumored move by the league as it continues to seek an extension to the collective bargaining agreement with players? Word is that the league's management council, which is its labor arm, has floated the possibility of eliminating practice squads. Teams were permitted eight practice squad players in 2004, up from five in previous seasons, so that could mean the potential elimination of 256 jobs leaguewide. Practice squads must be approved by owners on an annual basis.
• Sometimes you've got to take a step backward in the NFL to eventually move your career a step forward, and there might be no better current example of that than the Cincinnati Bengals' Nate Webster. The team's starting middle linebacker at the outset of 2004, after signing a five-year contract that included a $2.5 million signing bonus, Webster played in only three games but posted 20 tackles. He landed on the injured reserve list, unfortunately, after suffering a torn right patella tendon in late September, then his career was severely jeopardized in December when he tore the tendon again, precipitating a second surgery.
There were suggestions, some of them emanating from this space, that the Bengals were attempting to reach an injury settlement with Webster this spring. Turned out those reports were without substance, as such settlements are not permitted for injuries that occurred the previous year. What is true, however, is that Cincinnati, which now has second-year veteran Landon Johnson and 2005 second-round pick Odell Thurman ahead of Webster on the depth chart, was prepared to release Webster, who might not be fully rehabilitated until training camp if then.
Webster, though, made a wise, albeit financially costly, decision. Since no team in the NFL likely would have pursued a player who was still injured when released, Webster opted to dramatically restructure his contract to a level more palatable to Bengals officials. He reduced his base salary for 2005 from $1.5 million to $540,000, the league minimum for a five-year veteran. He can earn another $500,000 based on playing time. Almost as notable, the final three years of the contract, a stretch in which Webster was to have earned $5.7 million in base salaries and offseason workout bonuses, were voided.
So why would Webster allow such a reworking, one in which the net result is that he could end up forfeiting nearly $7 million of the deal's original $11.3 million? Because it behooves him to continue rehabilitating under the guidance of the Bengals' training staff rather than on his own. And if he can somehow get himself whole, work his way back up the depth chart and perhaps become a contributor in 2005, he will be an unrestricted free agent next spring, and perhaps capable of recouping in the open market some of the money he forfeited. It will be no small feat for Webster to even make the Cincinnati roster, since the Bengals like Johnson and Thurman was one of the steals of the draft. But for now, at least, having a job and a paycheck beats being out on the street and trying to rehab his right knee on his own.
• League salary documents obtained this week confirm, as anticipated, that the one-year contract wide receiver Jerry Rice signed with the Denver Broncos is an NFL minimum-salary deal. Rice received a $25,000 signing bonus and will earn a minimum base salary of $765,000 for 2005. That entitles the club to receive the so-called "veteran discount" on his salary cap charge, which is just $455,000. Because of the veteran discount, Denver, by rule, was precluded from including incentives in the contract.
• If he recovers from the ruptured Achilles that landed him on injured reserve for the final four games of the 2004 season, Oakland Raiders third-year wide receiver Ronald Curry could have a big year playing as a No. 3 guy with starters Randy Moss and Jerry Porter. The Oakland brass apparently feels the former North Carolina quarterback can continue to grow as a potentially explosive deep threat, since the team recently rewarded him with a new contract extension.
Of course, in typical Raiders fashion, the contract isn't nearly as good as the raw numbers make it appear. Curry, who caught 50 passes in 12 games in '04 and was really beginning to emerge as a downfield threat when he was injured, got a $200,000 signing bonus and base salaries of $380,000 (2005), $600,000 (2006) and then $1.5 million each for 2007-09. But the contract is basically just a two-year deal for $2.18 million. That includes the signing bonus, the salaries for 2005 and 2006 and a $1 million roster bonus next season. For 2007, the team owes Curry a $5 million roster bonus and isn't likely to pay it. Even if Curry continues to improve, the Raiders will try to rework the deal before the '07 season.
• With starting left offensive tackle Ross Verba insisting he will not practice until the team negotiates a lucrative, long-term contract extension with him, add Cleveland to the list of teams interested in free-agent tackle L.J. Shelton, whom the Arizona Cardinals recently released. The veteran blocker, who has started at both tackle spots during his six seasons in the league, quietly visited with Browns officials this week.
Shelton fell out of favor with Green, but teams find it difficult to ignore his first-round pedigree or the 77 regular-season starts on his résumé. Savage noted this week that Verba has two seasons remaining on his current contract and that he expects him to honor the deal. Verba has contended that, when he restructured his contract last year to help the Browns out of a salary cap squeeze, then-coach Butch Davis promised a new deal if the tackle played well. Savage has said several times already that he does not feel duty-bound by promises allegedly made by the former football regime.
• Punts: Look for right offensive tackle Scott Gragg, released Thursday by the 49ers for salary cap reasons, to draw quick interest. Gragg is a class act and, even at age 33, is still playing at a high level and probably has a couple of seasons left in him. The group of unemployed tackles figures to increase, with Todd Steussie (Tampa Bay) and Kyle Turley (St. Louis) expected to be chopped soon. Already on the market, besides Shelton and Gragg, is former Seattle starter Chris Terry. Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis, released earlier this week from a Florida prison and now subject to two months of house arrest in Atlanta, has petitioned federal corrections authorities to allow him to attend a mini-camp in Baltimore later this month. The Bengals felt they got a steal in the fifth round last year when they grabbed Michigan State defensive tackle Matthias Askew, an underclassman prospect who might have grown into a first-rounder had he stayed in school another year. Perhaps, in the long run, the Bengals will indeed have reaped a bargain. But Askew missed 11 games in 2004 because of injuries to both knees and now has a foot injury of undetermined nature. Asked whether Askew would be recovered in time for camp, coach Marvin Lewis responded cryptically, "Possibly." The good news is that Askew, who has a ton of physical potential, is just 22 years old and has plenty of time to develop into a player. The downside: You start to wonder when a young player has so many injuries early in his career. The Ravens continue to negotiate with Deion Sanders and hope to reach a contract accord in the next week or so. Falcons wide receiver Peerless Price this week debunked all the reports that he has a retina problem that has contributed to his lack of production in two seasons with the club. Price said that he has just an astigmatism and that it has played no role in his performance. Eleven-year veteran offensive tackle Jason Mathews, who played the last seven seasons in Tennessee, has retired to accept a job as assistant dean of a private academy in Nashville. Mathews left the door open a crack on a possible return, though, by noting he probably won't submit his official retirement papers to the NFL until next year. The Titans continue to flirt with the notion of trading for Buffalo tailback Travis Henry, but a deal does not yet appear imminent, since the Bills haven't lowered their asking price.
• The last word: "I hate him. Everybody says I'm supposed to be polite when I talk to [the media]. But I hate him. He talks too much. He doesn't make any sense. He's fat. He's sloppy. He acts like he's the best thing since sliced bread. He's ugly. He stinks. His mouth stinks. His breath stinks and, basically, his soul stinks, too." Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins on Oakland Raiders counterpart Warren Sapp
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.