Questions surround Williams' return
With it looking more likely that Ricky Williams will return, John Clayton takes a look at some of the questions surrounding the enigmatic running back.
Halfback Ricky Williams shocked the NFL and paralyzed the Dolphins last July by deciding to retire from football rather than face more drug tests and put his body through another year of pounding. But after 10 months of sorting out his life and facing a debt of $8.6 million owed to the Dolphins, Williams is contemplating a return to the NFL. Because of his past, there are more questions than answers, but let's try to answer a few to settle where this is all heading:
Q: What date is Williams eligible to return?
A: Officially, it's July 28, 2005. That's the one-year anniversary of his retirement from the NFL. The reason that date is important is how his situation fits into the NFL drug policy. Williams faced a four-game suspension in 2004 for violations of the league's substance policy for marijuana. When he retired July 28, he stopped taking tests. Since the league considers a missed test the same as a positive test, his suspension went from being a four-game suspension to a one-year suspension, which would have ended July 28, 2005. The league doesn't prevent a player from coming out of retirement, which makes the anniversary of his retirement so important. On July 28, Williams can ask the league to allow him to return, and commissioner Paul Tagliabue is expected to reinstate him. Upon his return, Williams will be subject to as many as 10 drug tests a month. He's still facing a four-game suspension this season, and a failed or missed test would knock him out for all of 2005.
Q: Wasn't there a chance Williams would have been able to play the entire 2005 season?
A: There was, but Williams blew that late last season by not accepting a deal negotiated by his attorney and the league. All Williams had to do was show up for the final four games and resume drug testing (and pass the tests). Had he done that, he would have been eligible to participate with the Dolphins or a new team for the entire offseason. He wouldn't have been asked to play last year, so the league felt the 16 games served off the field would have been penalty enough and the equivalent of a one-year suspension.
It's not as though the league is being overly punitive toward him. Williams violated the drug policy enough times with positive tests that he owed the NFL a four-game suspension. Because Williams has cleared his mind and does seem to be serious about returning, it's not out of the question for him to meet with the commissioner and ask to return to camp a little early.
Q: If he returns, will he still owe the Dolphins $8.6 million?
A: That's up to the Dolphins. The courts have ruled he owes the Dolphins the money. But the Dolphins aren't as interested in collecting all of the money. A good portion of the $8.6 million was paid by the Saints, but Williams breached the contract by not showing up last season and left himself vulnerable to paying everything back, including the incentives he earned for the Dolphins in previous years. The best guess is that if Williams stays with the Dolphins for the entire season, they would only force him to pay a couple of million dollars for time missed in 2004. Believe me, though, none of this has been discussed. Getting Williams to camp is challenging enough. Though the money issues are reasonably clear, that's not the priority for the Dolphins right now.
Q: Will the Dolphins have the cap room to take him back?
A: No problem there. Excluding the recent deals for wide receiver David Boston and nose tackle Keith Traylor, the Dolphins have more than $6 million of cap room. They can sign their draft choices and take back Williams without releasing anybody. Remember, Williams is only going to be paid for 12 games, not 16.
Q: Does the last year count on his contract, or is his deal extended a year further?
A: His contract stands as it was in 2004. Williams had three years remaining on his contract. He still has three years on his contract, meaning he's Dolphins property through 2007. This might come as a surprise, but there is a big question about the salary. His base salary under his contract should be $3.735 million, but he might only be eligible for a base salary of $540,000, the NFL minimum. One of the provisions of his contract was that if he breached the deal, as he did, his base salary would revert to the levels it was at under his deal with the Saints, which was the NFL minimum every year. If the Dolphins contend Williams should be at the minimum, he could file a grievance and fight for the bigger base salary. That would have to be settled later. But to be honest, that's a detail that isn't a priority at the moment. Williams contends he should have the $3.735 million salary. It's up to the Dolphins to push for their right to put the base salary at the minimum.
Q: If he serves a four-game suspension next fall, what is his status in regards to the league's drug policy?
A: Williams is one missed test or one positive test from getting the one-year suspension again. Sure, he has served a year, but it's a year he served by avoiding drug testing. The good news for Williams is that he actually has a better support system despite his somewhat strange pursuit of holistic medicine. He has completed one year of a three-year program to be certified as a holistic healer. He's also certified as an instructor for yoga, which is why he spent a month in India. The discipline he learned from these two exercises should help him. For one, his holistic healing teachers preached responsibility, natural healing and no drugs. That has kept him off marijuana. The discipline from his yoga instructors also kept him off drugs. Now, he has a better support group to keep him from smoking marijuana. Those new acquaintances are supporting his return to the NFL, and they might be the key in preventing him from smoking marijuana on the job.
Q: If the Dolphins trade him, will they take a cap hit?
A: Absolutely not. There is no signing bonus investment in Williams. There isn't any trade value, either. No one including the Dolphins knows what the team will get this summer when Williams shows up for camp. He's down to around 195 pounds. As a rookie with the Saints, he was 245 to 250 pounds. His lightest NFL weight was 225 pounds. He can put on 20 pounds or more through weightlifting. Thanks to yoga, he will be flexible. But no one knows how durable he will be.
Q: How will the Dolphins use him?
A: Surprisingly, Nick Saban wants Williams for his talent, not his future trade value. The Dolphins are going to run the ball a lot. That's why they drafted Ronnie Brown. Having Williams in October gives Saban a back with talent, as long as he stays clean and can get back into football shape. If Williams can rebuild his career, he could be traded in 2006. But right now, Saban isn't worried about 2006. He's just trying to fill out the 2005 roster, and if Williams works hard, he will be a part of it.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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