As the NFL dusts off the welcome mat for Ricky Williams, and rolls out the red carpet for the imminent return of the Miami Dolphins' erstwhile tailback, Rashard Anderson can't help but speculate whether the league is rolling up the sidewalks and preparing to bolt all of the remaining unlatched doors on his football career.
While league officials have circumvented their own rules by opting to treat Williams' voluntary hiatus from the game as time served on the one-year sanction for three positive marijuana tests, Anderson wonders aloud why he was always held to the letter of the law during his own two-year suspension. Sitting at home in Forest, Miss., waiting for a phone call he acknowledged this week might never come, Anderson questions how one documented reefer junkie is suddenly a prized prodigal, while his own addiction to marijuana has seemingly made him a pariah.
Anderson isn't bitter, mind you, just bewildered.
"Every time I turn on the TV, it seems like they're talking about Ricky Williams, how he is coming back," said Anderson, a cornerback chosen by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the 2000 draft, who hasn't played an NFL game since the 2001 season. "I feel like I'm sitting over in a corner, you know, screaming, 'Hey, look at me! What about me?' And it's like, no matter how loud I scream, no one is listening. I mean, I'm 6-feet-2 and 205 pounds, and I can still run. In a league where everyone is always looking for corners, I think to myself, 'Man, I'm supposed to be what everybody wants.' But right now, it's like I'm the only one thinking that way."
For those unfamiliar with Anderson, and the folks with selective amnesia (a subset that includes some team personnel executives), a refresher course: Anderson was selected 23rd overall in the 2000 draft, and after signing a five-year, $6 million deal that included a $2.83 million signing bonus, the former Jackson State star appeared in 27 games during 2000-01, with nine starts. Bouncing between cornerback and safety, he collected 59 tackles, one interception and nine passes defensed.
Then in the spring of '02, Anderson was suspended for a repeat violation of the NFL substance abuse policy. A subsequent screening while still in the program, believed to be a third positive test in a four-month period, earned Anderson an indefinite suspension. After some bouts with recidivism, Anderson was finally reinstated by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2004, whereupon the Panthers immediately released him.
Anderson hasn't worked in the NFL since, and at age 27, time is running out on him.
Despite being clean from marijuana and ecstasy, a secondary vice, for about 15 months, Anderson has seen more woe than workouts. Only Green Bay and New Orleans brought him in for auditions after Carolina banished him. There have been some promises, but no contract proposals at least from NFL teams.
Two weeks ago, asked about Williams' pending return, Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor noted that "this is America," where everyone gets a second chance. While the globe-trotting Williams toured third-world countries, criticizing the materialism he apparently has now decided to embrace again, Anderson didn't go quite that far. His road to what he hoped would be redemption began, instead, in Canada.
Eager to resume his football career, and willing to use the CFL as a potential springboard, Anderson signed on with the Calgary Stampeders last month. Yet even after snatching an interception in his first professional appearance in 41 months, Anderson was released last week when the Stamps slashed their roster to the 40-player regular-season limit.
Not even the man who handed Anderson his CFL pink slip, though, is convinced the former Panthers cornerback should be earmarked for the football scrap heap.
"People who haven't seen our game might not understand this, but it's just different for a cornerback, and some of the things Rashard does well simply didn't translate to our style of play," Calgary general manager Jim Barker said. "He's got really long arms and he is physical, able to jam receivers. But in our game, the receivers are in motion before the snap, and it's hard to get your hands on them and lock them up. Granted, I don't think Rashard has the same top-end speed that he had coming out [of college], and there was a little rust involved, but there is still talent there. To me, the guy has done his penance, and I'm pretty surprised that there are no NFL teams willing to bring him to camp."
If his release by Calgary was surprising "Oh man, more like stunning, OK?" Anderson said the endorsement by Barker is not. From a temperament standpoint, Anderson is an even-keeled guy. He is bright, with a degree in criminal justice that he soon may be forced to use. He's articulate and candid (perhaps to a fault) in discussing his past.
Neither work ethic nor attitude were problems, Barker said, during Anderson's short stint north of the border. He was, according to Barker, a model citizen, a player who displayed no signs he was slipping back into his purple haze past.
"A lot of NFL guys who come up here," Barker said, "kind of look down on our game. They think they're better than this. You didn't see any of that [with Anderson]. He was so humbled by his experience, and trying to jump-start his career again, that none of that was a factor with him. He was a good guy. Our players and coaches liked him. We just couldn't afford to keep him, that's all. But if some NFL team called me, I'd recommend him, and have no [qualms] about it."
Whether any NFL personnel director actually reaches for the phone and calls Barker, remains to be seen.
Just on the chance that some team seeking a veteran cornerback with a minimum-salary price tag finds him, Anderson will likely begin working again with renowned New Orleans-based personal trainer Tom Shaw, who prepared him for the Calgary training camp. Don't expect the pragmatic Anderson, however, to sit all day just staring at the phone.
Even though NFL teams have brought back several players with rap sheets longer and considerably more extensive than his, Anderson harbors few illusions. He won't suggest there is collusion involved in keeping him out of the NFL, but is confused by the dearth of interest in him. There are some gray areas about his status in the NFL substance abuse program, under which he is still subject to 10 random tests per month. But he has not tested positive for marijuana or ecstasy since his reinstatement.
One league official confirmed no franchise at least in the past few months has even checked with the NFL to determine Anderson's standing. A quick survey of seven NFL personnel directors this week indicated Anderson isn't on the emergency lists of any of them. Every day away from the game lengthens the odds Anderson will get back into it.
Mentally, there is a palpable calm about Anderson. But physically, after getting the juices flowing again during the CFL preseason, he is convinced he could come back to the NFL and contribute for someone.
"My first few days [in Canada], man, the soreness was just ridiculous," Anderson said. "I'd be down in my backpedal and thinking, 'Rashard, can you even do this anymore? And, if you can, is it worth all this pain to prove that you can?' But after those first two or three days, I was just like a car after you get the first 200 or 300 miles on it. The breaking-in period was over all of a sudden, and I was like on 'go.' That's still where I am. Maybe I didn't realize, during the years I was out of the game, just how much I missed it. But I sure do know it now. I missed it a lot."
The next few weeks, leading up to the July opening of training camps, will tell whether teams missed out on an opportunity to add a player, on the cheap, who once held great promise. One negative for Anderson during his time in the NFL was that the Panthers were never quite certain if safety or cornerback was his best position. But Jack Bushofsky, the team's personnel director when Carolina chose Anderson in 2000, felt the best approach was to put him on the corner and keep him there long enough to ascertain if he had the natural instincts to play on the edge.
"He was big, physical and could run well enough," Bushofsky said. "That was kind of the prototype of what you were looking for [at cornerback]."
Playing him at cornerback was the way the Panthers were headed when Anderson was suspended in '02. Referring to the "basic one-on-one challenge" inherent to the position, cornerback is where Anderson would prefer to play.
Remarkably candid about his past weakness, Anderson said staying straight remains, even after 15 months after swearing off marijuana, a far more significant challenge than covering the fastest wide receivers on a deep go route.
His hard-working and perseverant agent, Ben Wilson, who has burned up the phone lines merely trying to get a team to look at Anderson, said his client has never harmed anyone but himself.
"The only person who's ever suffered from the consequences of Rashard's actions is, well, Rashard," he said.
If he can't explain his self-destructive bent of the past, a habit in which he squandered millions of dollars in bonuses and salaries, Anderson certainly doesn't deny it.
"It's true that, whatever wounds I've got, physical or psychological, well, they were all self-inflicted," Anderson said. "Oh, man, I have stabbed myself bad, you know? There is no one else to point the finger at and say, 'Ah-hah, it was your fault.' All I've got to do is walk to the mirror, that's all. And why was it? Immaturity. Stubbornness. A lack of self-control. Ego. All of the above. It all comes with the professional athlete's territory.
"People will say to me, 'Man, you have p----- away millions.' But when you're doing it, you don't think of it that way. When I was sitting there all alone, and firing up [a joint], no one was telling me not to do it. Least of all myself. The only things that change you when you're like that are experience and maturity. I mean, you can tell someone not to stick their hand in a fire, right? But sometimes they've got to experience the pain for themselves, and be smart enough to decide, 'Well, now, I don't ever want to do that again,' before they get it. I got it, but it took me three years. And that's a long time."
Maybe, unfortunately, too long. Especially in a profession with such a short shelf life. Anderson has been out of sight for three seasons, and given the lack of response to Wilson's calls to personnel directors around the NFL, apparently out of mind as well.
Anderson is reluctant to set a time for when he will decide the pursuit of trying to be pursued again has run its course. But there are family considerations like his two daughters, ages 3 and 1, and a loving girlfriend and those realities are part of the equation he mentally crunches several times a day.
Just before the Calgary Stampeders called to offer a possible job, Anderson was all but convinced time had run out on him. The flirtation with resurrecting his career whetted his appetite for the game, and for the competition he so relishes, but the realist in him says he can't chase the dream forever.
If his football career is, quite literally, up in smoke, it seems Anderson will find a way to reconcile what could have been with what he now has in his life, and move on.
"I made sure I got my degree and I'm not afraid, not like some athletes, of doing the 9-5 thing," Anderson said. "I've got a family to care for and that is uppermost. So while I can't answer right now how much longer I'll chase this thing, it won't be forever. There is something in me that tells me something good is going to happen but, if it's going to happen, it has to be soon.
"I mean, I'm a believer, but I'm not a fool."
Around the league
• In a league where a guy like Doug Johnson can get a job, and claim he will be the primary backup to Trent Dilfer, you've got to wonder what more experienced quarterbacks like Vinny Testaverde, Jeff Blake, Kordell Stewart and Jeff George have to do to land a contract. The quartet has combined for 515 regular-season starts, 108,479 passing yards and 632 touchdown passes.
Of the four, though, it seems Testaverde who might wait until well into camp to see if some team suffers an injury and suddenly needs a veteran is the only one who has received any serious inquiries. There have been "some conversations" about Blake, agent Ralph Cindrich said, but nothing substantive yet. And Cindrich said his client, at age 34, isn't going to sign a contract just to draw a paycheck. "His sons are older now, he'd like to spend more time with them, and he wants to go to a team where he isn't on that one-year-at-a-time treadmill," Cindrich said. "He'd like to stay somewhere for more than just a season." Blake has played for four different franchises the past four years, and five teams in the last six seasons, and was a starter as recently as '03, in Arizona. The 13-year veteran has a habit of rubbing people the wrong way, generally because he's so candid about how he assesses his talents, but Eagles officials said good things about him last season, and given the paucity of experienced backups, he ought to be in a camp somewhere.
• Amazing how receiving the New England Patriots' stamp of approval immediately changes how a player is perceived. After two lackluster seasons in Washington, and a 2004 season shortened to just six games due to injury, onetime standout kick returner Chad Morton is suddenly viewed as a guy who can make an impact again in 2005, following his deal with the Pats this week. That's because Bill Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli have been nothing short of brilliant in resurrecting the careers of fading veterans, finding very specific roles for players in the age of specialization, and providing opportunities for such guys to win a Super Bowl ring or two.
Time will tell if Morton is the player he once was, but for just $600,000 on a one-year contract, he might have been worth the gamble. Especially for a New England team whose punt return game was less than scintillating in 2004. The Patriots ranked 29th in the league in '04, with an average punt return of just 5.8 yards, and no return longer than 23 yards.
The Pats added Tim Dwight in the offseason, but the oft-injured veteran wide receiver/return specialist only recently began to run again after his latest rehabilitation. The explosive Bethel Johnson, arguably one of the NFL's fastest players, was hobbled last season by a foot injury and hasn't recovered 100 percent yet. There have been rumors that Johnson set back his recovery in an offseason basketball game. So maybe Morton was a good insurance policy for the Pats, who have a proven track record for turning modest investments into solid dividends.
As is their wont, the Patriots brought Morton in a for a visit under the radar last week, then snatched him away from other suitors such as Minnesota, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.
• Unless the San Francisco 49ers finish with the worst record in the league again, Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart figures to be the top overall choice in the 2006 draft. But based on early ratings of senior players by National Football Scouting and Blesto, the two combine services that provide reports to subscriber franchises, Leinart isn't the top-ranked senior in the country. According to one person who has seen the early reports, which have been frustratingly difficult to land this year, Leinart rates behind Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway and Auburn offensive tackle Marcus McNeill on the national scores. The Trojans star and reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the second-rated senior, behind Miami offensive tackle Eric Winston, top senior according to Blesto.
The early rankings tend to be just a guidepost for scouts and change dramatically over the course of the college football season and the scouting process. What isn't apt to change, though, is the potential strength of the offensive line class in the '06 draft. In the national ratings, four of the top 14 senior prospects are offensive linemen, our mole tells us. And five of the top 13 players in the Blesto rankings are blockers.
• League scouts will keep a wary eye on the case of Georgia Tech senior cornerback Reuben Houston, who was suspended by the university and coach Chan Gailey this week after his arrest on felony charges of conspiring to possess and distribute about 94 pounds of marijuana, with a street value of $60,000-80,000. A two-year starter for the Yellow Jackets and a solid cover defender, Houston was certainly regarded by NFL scouts as a viable prospect for the 2006 draft. According to the same scout cited in the previous item, Houston was rated the eighth-highest senior cornerback prospect by one combine service and the No. 7 cornerback by the other. Houston is 5-foot-11¼, 186 pounds, runs in the 4.5s and had a Wonderlic score of 32. If he is convicted on the drug charges, however, Houston faces a potential 20-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine.
Houston was arrested Tuesday by federal agents in connection with an alleged Frenso, Calif.-based marijuana distribution ring. Houston, who had seven interceptions and 151 tackles in his two seasons as a starter, must appear at a preliminary hearing in Fresno Monday morning.
• It's rare when an undrafted college free agent earns a roster spot. It's all but unheard of, history indicates, for an undrafted player to be an opening day starter. But based on some flattering reports out of Arizona, tight end Adam Bergen, an undrafted free agent from Lehigh, has a shot at starting for the Cardinals as a rookie. Bergen, who was projected by some as a fourth-round pick but slipped out of the lottery entirely, has been getting snaps with the first-unit offense in offseason workouts. A two-time All-American at the Division I-AA level, Bergen has nice size (6-4½, 265 pounds), solid hands, good enough speed (mid-4.8s) and is a willing blocker. In his final two seasons at Lehigh, he registered 124 catches, 1,474 yards and 14 touchdown passes.
Bergen has a couple things in his favor. For openers, as demonstrated last season, coach Dennis Green is anything but reluctant about starting rookies as he seeks to build the Cardinals into a contender. Second, it isn't as if the competition at tight end is particularly daunting for Bergen. Each of the four other tight ends on the roster Eric Edwards, Bobby Blizzard, Aaron Golliday and John Bronson also entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent. That's right, the Cards don't have a single drafted player on their tight-end depth chart. Of that foursome, only Edwards has played in a regular-season game; he has five receptions for 51 yards in his career.
• Among some of the other undrafted free agents who have gotten decent reviews in our conversations with coaches and personnel men: cornerback Chris McKenzie (Houston), linebacker Marques Harris (San Diego), wide receiver Taylor Stubblefield (Carolina), tailback Walter Reyes (Tennessee), tailback Sam Gado (Kansas City), defensive end George Gause (Buffalo) and safety Abram Elam (Miami).
• Sometimes, it seems, even the best-made plans come undone. Exercising terrific foresight, in light of their suspicions that starting cornerback Eric Warfield faces a four-game suspension for multiple DUI offenses, the Kansas City coaching staff elevated third-year veteran Julian Battle to the top unit for last week's minicamp. Nice planning, right? Get the physically gifted but inexperienced Battle, who has just one career start, some time in minicamp working with Patrick Surtain, the superb cornerback acquired from Miami in a trade. Then when the league brings the hammer down on Warfield, who has had three DUI convictions in three years, Battle would be prepared to open the year as the starter.
The only problem is, Battle ruptured his Achilles tendon in minicamp, and will be lost for the season. Now the Chiefs, who don't have much experience at corner, are scrambling to find a viable veteran. Kansas City auditioned a quartet of veteran free agents Aaron Beasley, Ashley Ambrose, Dewayne Washington and Terrance Shaw Thursday. And the Chiefs will continue to monitor the recovery of four-time Pro Bowl performer Ty Law, the former New England star who has just begun to make hard cuts on his surgically repaired left foot.
But the most likely scenario is the Chiefs will use Dexter McCleon as the starter for the first four games. The eight-year veteran has 80 career starts on his resume, but at age 31, the Chiefs had hoped to be able to play McCleon exclusively as a nickel cornerback in 2005.
• Look for the Houston offensive line, which has surrendered 161 sacks during the franchise's first three seasons, to have a new look in 2005. And that doesn't mean just in terms of personnel; the unit is undergoing another reshuffling, as Houston tries to remedy the key left tackle spot. Line coach Joe Pendry is said to have taken on a bit more of an expanded role in designing protection schemes and, perhaps, in game planning input. As porous as the Texans have been on the flanks at times, there have been stretches in which the Houston protection design permitted too much inside pressure as well.
In the latest reincarnation of the line, the Texans have experimented with moving center Steve McKinney to left guard. That would bump left guard Chester Pitts out to left tackle, the position he started at as a rookie in 2002, and likely reduce Seth Wand to a backup role. Wand really struggled at left tackle in 2004, his first season as a starter, and some in the organization feel he might be better served moving to guard for the long run.
• Pardon my provincialism but, as a native Pittsburgher, I can't let the week pass without recognizing the retirement of longtime Steelers radio analyst Myron Cope, who retired this week, and thanking him for his friendship and hours of entertainment. If you've never heard the gravel-voiced Cope call a game, well, you've missed something special.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, at least for codgers of my vintage, you had the benefit of two great radio voices. The late Bob Prince was the voice of the Pirates for any Baby Boomer. And then Cope, a gifted writer whose skills in that area have been ignored of late, came along on the Steelers games. And, you betcha, to steal a Cope-ism, how things changed on the Steelers broadcasts. During the glory years, we 'burghers came to know the Steelers as first-name-only personalities. Mean Joe. Franco. Lynn and Terry. Everyone knew Myron on a first-name basis, too, and every bit as much as those Hall of Fame personages, his celebrity has endured. As a longtime Cope-a-nut, so honored for a particularly salient call I made to his radio talk show many years ago, I wear the mantle proudly.
My favorite Cope story: Back in January 1992, for Super Bowl XXV in Minneapolis, when Myron still graced us with his presence at the title games, Cope spent much of the week anticipating a Harry Connick Jr. concert that was scheduled for the eve of the game. Cope had heard Connick was the second coming of Frank Sinatra, and as a huge fan of Ol' Blue Eyes, had scored tickets for the concert. For a week in the media room, over toddies (another Cope-ism), Myron spoke eagerly of the Connick concert. For much of that time, his audience was my wife, Susan, who could sit for hours and listen to Myron. On Saturday night, many of Cope's friends gathered in the media room, waiting for him to return from the Connick gig. And when he did, Cope did nothing to hide his disappointment. "He ain't no Sinatra," warbled Myron, assessing the young crooner.
OK, so maybe you had to be there, right? But if you were ever there, with Myron, anywhere, you were in great company. Wisely, the Steelers will not replace Cope in the booth. Tunch Ilkin, the former Steelers offensive lineman who has worked as the No. 3 man with Cope and stellar play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove, simply moves up a notch. Which is great, because now none of Myron's friends and fans will ever have to rate any successor with the words, "He ain't no Myron."
• Punts: Add Toledo defensive end Jerome Walker and Texas Tech tailback and return specialist Ivory McCann to the list of players who will be in the supplemental draft July 14. Neither played in 2004 and neither figures to be selected. The two-year deal that wide receiver Johnnie Morton signed with San Francisco includes a $150,000 bonus and minimum base salaries of $765,000 for this season and $770,000 for 2006. Former Cleveland offensive tackle Ross Verba, who essentially forced his release by complaining loudly about his contract situation, is finding a tough free agent market. Verba, who suggested he wanted a contract worth $6-7 million per year, is garnering just minimum-salary offers so far. The Atlanta Falcons aren't quite as interested in free-agent safety Lance Schulters as many outsiders assume they are. St. Louis coaches have all but finalized plans to move Adam Archuleta from strong safety to free safety. Only about two dozen of the 255 players chosen in the draft have reached contract agreements. The lone first-day pick with a deal is Chicago second-round wide receiver Mark Bradley of Oklahoma. Bengals officials remain hopeful tailback Chris Perry will be 100 percent by training camp. The team's first-round pick in 2004, Perry logged only two carries as a rookie and has undergone two surgeries to repair a sports hernia problem.
• The last word: "It's supposed to be. Don't get twisted, [but] it's supposed to be high. I came here and I took a big pay cut. I came here on nothing. I came here out of respect, and I still haven't gotten the respect I truly deserve. But I got the respect of money and I can walk away and say that's cool." Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice, defending his $6 million base salary and $10.7 million salary cap charge for 2005.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.