Williams faces inherent adjustment period

Ricky Williams is just the latest to benefit from the CFL's open-door policy regarding high-profile RBs, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: June 16, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

When the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats meet Saturday afternoon in their season openers, the starting tailbacks for the CFL teams, Ricky Williams and Josh Ranek, respectively, will provide a graphic portrayal of the disparate expectations for some runners who venture north of the border to continue their professional football careers.

Some tailbacks, such as Ranek and Troy Davis of the Edmonton Eskimos, go to the CFL to make a living. And others, such as Williams and former Minnesota Vikings part-time starter Onterrio Smith, who was released by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last week, head north to help them make it back to the NFL at some point.

Whatever their motivations -- money, ego, rehabilitating from an injury or from an image problem -- the CFL policy toward importing tailbacks is just about as open and free-flowing as the border between Canada and the United States has been for decades. Show your driver's license, birth certificate and proof that you have rushed for 1,000 yards in an American college football program, or drawn a paycheck from an NFL team, and chances are, eh, you'll find a roster spot and a chilled Molson awaiting your arrival.

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"We certainly can't compete [with the NFL] for the premier backs, except in an unusual circumstance like the one [Williams] is going through," Toronto general manager Adam Rita said. "But we are always looking for guys who maybe fall between the cracks, or just don't have the skills to play at the NFL level, but who fit our game well. We've always had a lot of running backs from the United States playing in our league. Some of them have [worked] out and some of them haven't."

Ricky Williams
AP Photo/Adrian WyldBefore he becomes a force up north, Ricky Williams must learn the nuances of the CFL game.

Indeed, one of the top backs in CFL history was Mike Pringle, a former fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons whose NFL career lasted but one season. Conversely, former St. Louis Rams first-round tailback Lawrence Phillips fared no better in the CFL than in the NFL, where his career was short-circuited by his well-documented anger management shortcomings. And Smith, who like Williams is serving a one-year suspension for substance abuse violations, barely made it through training camp before being released in the regular-season roster cutdown.

For many backs, though, the CFL has offered a viable alternative to life in the big time. And even some big-time tailbacks, like Williams and Phillips, have tried a little northern exposure to try to either keep their careers alive or attempt to resuscitate them.

Of the 23 tailbacks listed on the active rosters of the eight CFL franchises Thursday afternoon, a day before the league began its regular season, 15 were so-called "import" players. Eleven of the tailbacks had been in an NFL training camp, eight had been on active rosters, and five had been starters in at least eight regular-season games. At least five of the eight CFL franchises will feature starting tailbacks with NFL experience when they open the regular season this weekend.

Three of the import running backs -- Williams and Toronto teammate John Avery, along with Montreal Alouettes starter Robert Edwards -- are former NFL first-round draft choices.

That last résumé entry, though, doesn't necessarily guarantee success in the CFL.

While most of his tailback peers are excited about the ramped-up attention that Williams has helped bring the league, and feel that the erstwhile Miami Dolphins back will be successful in the CFL, some suggest that he might suffer through a transition period on the field. The differences between American football and its Canadian counterpart aren't, of course, as pronounced as the differences between what we call football and what the rest of the World Cup-crazed planet does. Still, it's likely that Williams might struggle with more than just the monetary exchange rate at the outset of what figures to be a one-season CFL tenure.

"Definitely, there are some differences, and it takes a while to get accustomed to them," said Davis, the former Iowa State star who played three seasons for the New Orleans Saints (1997-99) before heading to Canada in 2001. "Because there are only three downs on offense, it's so much more a throwing game, so you have to be a good receiver and a good blocker. And you're not going to get the ball 20 or 24 times, no matter how good you're going. And you have to learn how to take advantage of the [bigger] field."

The CFL game, it seems, might be much better suited to smaller, quicker runners, and the skill set they possess. It seems, when watching a CFL game, that there are acres of open field in which to run, and that backs who operate well in space perform the best.

Davis, 30, is just such a back. At 5-foot-8 and 183 pounds, Davis, a third-round choice in the 1997 draft and the first player in NCAA history to post consecutive 2,000-yard rushing seasons, never ran for as much as 300 yards in an NFL season and finished his career with 446 yards and one touchdown on 150 carries. In the CFL, his least productive season was when he rushed for 527 yards in 2001, a year in which he didn't play a full campaign, and he now has four straight 1,000-yard seasons.

The equally low-slung Ranek is another smaller tailback who has carved out a sizable niche in the CFL after a sterling college tenure at South Dakota State, where he set a record for most career rushing attempts in Division II history.

Ranek was in camp with the Dallas Cowboys in 2002 as an undrafted free agent, was released toward the end of preseason play, and quickly signed with the Ottawa Rough Riders. In four seasons, he has rushed for 4,028 yards, including three straight 1,000-yard campaigns. Just as important to the CFL game, Ranek has been a terrific all-around back, as evidenced by his average of 56.3 receptions per year. When the Ottawa franchise suspended operations this year because of shaky financing, he signed with Hamilton.

"Bigger fields, smaller crowds, wide receivers in motion like it's a fire drill or something. But you know what? It's football. And if you love playing, hey, why not?"
Robert Edwards

From a pure talent standpoint, Ranek probably doesn't belong on the same field as Williams, although they will be on opposite sidelines at the Rogers Centre in Toronto Saturday afternoon. But after spending his first few CFL seasons hoping his performance might earn him an invitation to an NFL training camp, Ranek has come to accept his place in the football universe. And he says it's not such a bad place after all.

"You've got to know yourself and know your abilities and limitations," Ranek said. "It's the dream of every running back to score the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl, but for how many guys does it really happen? [The CFL] has been good to me. I've been able to earn a living doing something I enjoy. You get to a point, and it's a good point, where you don't drive yourself crazy anymore wondering about how you might have [fared] if you'd gotten another shot in the NFL. This has become a big enough profile for me."

That said, it's the higher profile Williams will provide the CFL -- and Smith might have as well -- which will be a prominent theme throughout the 18-game season.

It's not as if Toronto signed Williams, banished from the NFL for a season because of at least his fourth violation of the league substance abuse policy, to be just some sideshow freak on the football boardwalk. The Argonauts' brass made a football decision as well in providing Williams a place to play, a regimented environment and a paycheck considerably fatter than the ones that are being cashed by most CFL players.

Williams will bump Avery -- the first-round choice of the Dolphins in 1998 and a guy who seems to have suited up in virtually every professional football league imaginable (including the short-lived XFL) -- in the starting lineup. The slithery Avery rang up 961 total yards in 2005, but Argos coaches feel Williams will significantly boost their offense (or "offence," as it's spelled in Canada).

In his two preseason appearances, Williams displayed some rust, and a basic awkwardness with the CFL game, in which there are 12 players in the starting lineup and a discombobulating amount of motion. But the Argos are banking on his natural skills, and physical superiority, to override mental and mechanical glitches.

"But it does take awhile," said Robert Edwards, the New England Patriots' first-round choice in 1998. "Bigger fields, smaller crowds, wide receivers in motion like it's a fire drill or something. But you know what? It's football. And if you love playing, hey, why not?"

Edwards' NFL career was all but ended by a freak accident suffered at a Pro Bowl ancillary event following his 1,000-yard debut season. The 32-year-old tailback missed three full seasons (1999-2001) as he attempted to fight his way back to the NFL. He did make a comeback with the Miami Dolphins in 2002, then was out of the game for the two ensuing years before signing with Montreal in 2005. Edwards has no more delusions about returning to the NFL, but was not ready to retire yet, so the CFL seemed a good option for him. The former University of Georgia star rushed for 1,199 yards and eight touchdowns in his first CFL campaign.

One might assume Williams could sleepwalk through the Toronto schedule and register those kinds of numbers. But only time will tell how Williams adapts to a CFL game that, despite a shared language, has been wholly undecipherable to some pretty good American tailbacks who have gone north. And that time begins Saturday afternoon with the season opener.

"For the good of the league, and Ricky's good, too, I'm sure everybody wishes him well," Davis said. "But he'll find out it's a decent brand of ball and not just a walk in the park."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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