|Friday, July 5
Updated: July 10, 2:52 PM ET
Dolphins can make a run with Williams
By Len Pasquarelli
Both are big and physically imposing, well-constructed and skillfully crafted.
But when Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt views the two most significant acquisitions of his offseason -- the baby grand piano wife Jan purchased for their home and the new tailback added through a March swap with the New Orleans Saints -- he's smart enough to know his harmony is far better with Ricky Williams at this point than with the expensive set of ivories.
The piano, for Wannstedt and his family, is an instrument of beauty. But Williams is the blunt instrument that the Dolphins coaching staff plans to deploy in hammering its way to the playoffs for a third consecutive season under Wannstedt.
"Nothing against the running backs who have been here," said quarterback Jay Fiedler, "but getting a player of Williams' caliber makes us so much better. We need to progress further than just the first or second round (of the playoffs) and he gives us the capability of going all the way. He just fits so well into what we do."
So well, in fact, that Williams is the choice of ESPN.com and of general managers and personnel directors around the NFL as the most significant offseason veteran acquisition.
It is somewhat ironic that, in this era of free agency and wholesale player movement, the two top contenders for the title joined their new teams in old-fashioned trades. And both of the two players considered by the vast majority of team officials surveyed, Williams and Buffalo Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, figure to dramatically affect the standings in the AFC East.
But while Bills' general manager Tom Donahoe is to be lauded for his indefatigable pursuit of Bledsoe, the veteran quarterback only moves Buffalo one step closer to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Williams should nudge the Dolphins, who posted 11-5 records in each of Wannstedt's first two seasons, deeper into the playoffs and perhaps catapult the franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance since 1984.
Miami has experienced a bad habit of faltering late in the regular season and disappearing early from the playoffs. A viable offensive force like Williams, arguably one of the NFL's top tailbacks despite criticism in the past, should remedy those shortcomings.
In addition to Bledsoe, there are a number of other veterans -- such as defensive end Joe Johnson, another former Saints player, who moved to Green Bay in free agency -- who might nudge their new teams toward a Super Bowl appearance. But none should have the overall impact of The Dreadlocked One.
"They were a very good team before getting Williams," said New York Jets coach Herm Edwards. "He definitely moves them up a notch. It was a tremendous deal for them."
Indeed, the relentless persistence of Wannstedt and vice president Rick Spielman in going after Williams should pay big dividends for an offense that slumped to 21st overall in the league in 2001 and ranked only No. 23 in rushing. Miami averaged just 76.4 rushing yards in five defeats last season, 116.5 yards in five victories.
Even though the team's fortunes typically mirror the performance of Fiedler, he is more of a complementary-type quarterback, one who needs to be surrounded by a number of talented components. Williams, 25, should be one of those components for years to come.
And actually, given the shared offensive philosophy of Wannstedt and coordinator Norv Turner, he should become the centerpiece of a powerful running game. The New Orleans coaches groused, particularly after his departure, that Williams was not a breakaway run threat, and head coach Jim Haslett emphasized he never had a touchdown run of longer than 26 yards in his tenure there.
As evidenced by his recent traffic ticket woes, Williams clearly saves most of his speed for when he is behind the wheel and not on the field. The Dolphins, though, don't care about 40- and 50-yard dashes through the secondary as long as Williams is doing damage with four- and five-yard bursts through the middle of the defense.
"From what I've seen so far," Williams said, "I'm going to get the ball a lot. And I'm a back who gets better as the game goes on, with the more carries he gets, because I feel like I can wear people down."
Erroneously pegged as a passing attack guru, Turner is a man who loves to bludgeon opponents with the running game, and Williams will be his new human wrecking ball. Turner's preferred method is to get a lead and then use the run to protect it in the fourth quarter.
Translation: Williams, who averaged 271.3 carries and 1,043 yards during his three seasons in New Orleans, will top those numbers in Miami if he simply stays healthy. "He's a great fit here," said Turner of his newest weapon. "I think he'll like the way we play."
Dating back to 1991, when Turner first became an offensive coordinator in Dallas, his attacks have featured a strong inside rushing game. Over that period, the "feature" back in the Turner-designed offense has averaged 292 rushes and 1,223 yards.
In eight of those 11 seasons, Turner had a 1,200-yard runner, the only exceptions in 1994 when he had to rotate backs as head coach in Washington, and in 1997 and 1998 when an aging Terry Allen combined for only 1,424 yards in two years. Take away those three fallow seasons, and the starting tailbacks who played under Turner averaged 1,423 yards.
The 1,200-yard mark is significant, because the Dolphins will have to surrender a second-round choice to the Saints in 2003 if Williams reaches the milestone. If he gets to 1,500 rushing yards, the pick becomes a first-rounder. Presently, the 2003 choice owed the Saints is a third-rounder. Miami also surrendered first- and fourth-round picks in the 2002 draft. But Wannstedt certainly won't mind elevating the 2003 pick to first-round status, because doing so will mean Williams has enjoyed a career season.
Clearly, the 1,500-yard benchmark is a possibility given the dovetailing of Turner's offense and the skills Williams will bring to the Miami attack. Emmitt Smith averaged 1,587 yards in his first three seasons playing in the Turner offense. Stephen Davis averaged 1,361 yards in his first two years as the Washington starter. At San Diego in 2001, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 1,236 yards as a rookie, with Turner as the offensive coordinator.
During the two seasons Wannstedt and Turner were together as coordinators on Jimmy Johnson's staff with the Cowboys, the team ranked in the top 10 in rushing and captured a Super Bowl title. Wannstedt's expertise may lie on the defensive side of the ball, but he knows there is a corollary between a strong offensive running attack and a good defense.
Williams should allow the Dolphins to better control the pace of the game and to permit an already outstanding Miami defense to spend a little more time on the sideline. Whether or not that all translates into a division title in the well-balanced AFC East, or perhaps a Super Bowl berth, remains to be seen.
There is no denying, though, that the marriage of Williams and the Dolphins appears to be a solid one, and neither Wannstedt nor his newest star had to appear yet on the cover of a magazine pledging their troth to one another.
Wannstedt is fond of telling a story about how, two days after the press conference at which Williams was introduced to the Miami media, the coach received a phone call in his office from a local realtor. The agent apprised Wannstedt that Williams, who wan't due back in Miami for the start of the offseason conditioning program for a couple more weeks, had already put a deposit on a house.
The next day, when Wannstedt wandered into the weight room, Williams was there.
"I think the difference here is that, we've already got a lot of high-profile players on the team, and he doesn't have to be the main guy all the time," Wannstedt said. "There might not be as much pressure on him here. It's already an environment with players of note and all he has to do is find his niche in that group."
The early returns indicate that Williams, not nearly as aloof as he was in New Orleans, is doing just that. His recent problems with the law can't be ignored, and club officials will not permit him the degree of indiscretion he enjoyed in the past, but he has been a solid citizen for the most part.
The bouts of weird behavior that marked a star-crossed tenure with the Saints have been less frequent. By all accounts, Williams has made a legitimate effort to squeeze into the round hole, to lean on convention more than controversy.
Miami coaches are counting on him, starting later this month when camp opens, to find a way to squeeze through holes round and square and all shapes and sizes. There has been an effort toward creating a more physical and aggressive offensive one, one capable of knocking defenders off the ball, of carving out as least a crease for its new star.
Seems to Wannstedt, at least, that Williams has already carved out his place.
"We're excited, and I think Ricky is as excited as we are," Wannstedt said. "He can be a special player and we're going to give him the opportunity to be just that."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.