Williams still needs clearance from NFL

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Dolphins coach Nick Saban sat at a corner table overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where humpbacks were playing, and made a whale of a proclamation: He's willing to take Ricky Williams back as Miami's running back.

Williams, the troubled halfback who retired and is now learning holistic medicine, currently is in India. Williams has dropped his legal challenges to the $8.6 million judgment against him for quitting the team while under contract. He's also spoken with Saban, although this is clearly the beginning stages of a possible return to the NFL.

"It's kind of a work in progress," Saban said. "There is no formula to it. There is no endpoint to it. It's just a work in progress. There are a lot of issues in regards to personal and professional [matters] that really he needs to make a decision. We're going to facilitate and help him however we can for him to make those decisions to do it, and if he decides to do it, [we've said] 'we'll support you relative to that.' "

Saban said he has gone so far as to speak to team leaders about Williams returning. Apparently, the response to his return was not as bad as most people outside of the Dolphins' organization would expect. Now, it's up to Williams.

Coming from LSU to the Miami Dolphins, Saban doesn't harbor the same emotions as those who watched Williams quit on the team last year. To him, Williams is a potentially available asset whom he doesn't know. They've talked only briefly. But Williams' departure robbed the offense of its main threat and destroyed the unit, and the team is in desperate need of a running back.

Though it is likely the Dolphins will use the second choice in the NFL draft on a running back, Williams still could fit into the mix and try to resurrect his career. To Saban, it's a business decision, and Williams is an option.

"This is as clear as it gets," Saban said. "That person has value relative to his performance in history, and it's the rights of our organization. What is there to be clear about? We're not slamming the door on him. The lines of communication have been opened so that if there is a commitment, the possibility exists that he has an opportunity to be supported in coming back to the Dolphins. The decision that happens in the future? I don't have a crystal ball."

No one can guess what the future holds for Williams. He says he has given up smoking marijuana in the past month. Williams also must work out his return with the NFL, and that won't be easy. He walked away from a negotiated return to the league last season in which he could have been on the Dolphins' active roster for the final four games. The league would have considered the penalties for his violations of the substance-abuse policy as time served.

David Cornwell, the attorney who negotiated that settlement, no longer works for Williams. With the deal off the table, it's possible the NFL could take the position that Williams needs to serve a year's suspension for retiring before the start of last season, when he reached Step Two of the substance-abuse policy and said he was subject to a four-game suspension.

Williams might have escalated the length of his penalty by retiring and no longer taking drug tests. Those details would have to be worked out with the NFL. For now, the biggest development in the story is that Saban is willing to support Williams if he tries to come back.

Saban wouldn't discuss the details of his conversation with Williams, and will only talk in generalities of his possible return.

"Look, if you want to come back and play football, and you are willing to do the things you need to do to do that, you have that opportunity," Saban said of his conversation with Williams. "The guy obviously has been a very productive player. He's obviously had some issues surrounding him, based on the past. We would have to work through those issues."

In one scenario, Williams could return to be part of a backfield where he could be paired with Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson or Cadillac Williams. Saban doesn't believe in overusing one back. At LSU, he tried to develop a backfield that had at least two good players.

"I think there are a lot of varied opinions on the running back position because there have been some very good teams who had great running backs and had lots of success," Saban said. "There have been some teams that really don't have a marquee guy and had a lot of success. We would rather have a balanced offense that utilizes all the explosive players on the field."

Last season, several players on the Dolphins spoke out about not wanting Williams to return, and he didn't. Saban is looking ahead.

"People make emotional decisions," Saban said. "Sometimes, time heals that. I'm not saying what happened is OK. But I wasn't here for it. I think the leadership on the team I have spoken to is more interested in the same thing I'm interested in. If he's interested to come back and help us win, then I think that is something I'm interested in doing."

Now, the decision is up to Williams. The door is open in Miami. Will he walk through it? No one knows. As Saban says, there is no crystal ball.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.