Argos own exclusive CFL bargaining rights to Williams
It might not be quite as attractive as the exotic locales to which he has become so accustomed as a well-practiced globetrotter the last two offseasons, but if erstwhile tailback Ricky Williams is interested in a paid junket to Canada, well, the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL might oblige.
Argos vice president of football operations Adam Rita confirmed Thursday afternoon that his club has placed Williams on its negotiation list, meaning Toronto now owns the exclusive CFL bargaining rights to the banished tailback. Under CFL rules, each team is permitted a 35-man negotiating list and can discuss a contract with those players, even if they are under NFL suspension.
The NFL announced on Tuesday that Williams' appeal of a fourth violation of the league substance abuse policy was denied and that he is suspended for one year. This marks the second time in three years that Williams will sit out a full season. Williams missed the 2004 campaign when he abruptly retired, only days before the start of training camp that summer, following his third violation of the substance abuse policy.
Williams can apply for reinstatement to the league after one year.
During that year, Rita reasoned, Williams is going to have to stay in shape if he plans to return to the NFL for the 2007 season. And the CFL, which opens training camps next month, could provide an alternative, Rita said, to continue playing football at a high level, to stay in shape, earn some money and refocus on his personal and professional priorities.
Rita said that the Argos have not yet discussed the possibilities with agent Leigh Steinberg but did speak to one of his associates and definitely want to continue the dialogue. There are no CFL rules that preclude the Argonauts, now that they have secured Williams' negotiating rights, from signing him.
Dolphins officials contended Thursday that Williams' contract is NFL-exclusive and that he cannot play in another professional sports league. But if Williams wants to sign with the Argonauts, he and his representatives could cite precedents under which NFL players moved to the CFL while still under contract and under suspension.
"Yeah, we'd like to pursue it, to see if there is real interest on [Williams'] part, but right now we're just kind of kicking the tires," Rita said. "We'd like to see what's going on with Ricky, where his interests are right now, and determine if there's something mutual there. Right now, it's still early in the process, and we don't have any answers yet. But we're going to try to get some."
The Toronto roster already includes two former first-round draft picks, offensive tackle Bernard Williams and wide receiver R. Jay Soward, who essentially squandered their NFL careers because of their repeat violations of the substance abuse policy. Bernard Williams was the first-round choice of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994 and played only one active season before he was suspended. The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Soward in 2000 and he played only two seasons before being banished.
"Those two guys have become great leaders for this team," Rita said. "People have to understand, it isn't the same climate in our league. Their pressure isn't the same. The pressure in the NFL is just relentless, from every angle, you know? It isn't quite the same for us. Now, don't get me wrong, we want really good citizens, too. But we understand that there are circumstances, some things that arise with players, where it goes a little bit off-center. We're willing to give them a chance to get back on track and regain focus. And they help us out, too, by counseling some of our younger players. In a sense, they use us, and we use them a little bit, too. Guys tend to react differently when they know it's their last chance."
Former NFL star receiver Andre Rison played for Toronto two years ago and Rita said he brought veteran leadership and guidance to the roster. The Argos' current starting tailback, John Avery, is another former NFL first-round pick, the top choice of the Miami Dolphins in 1998. The CFL has a history of signing former NFL players who have experienced off-field problems and, for the most part, Rita emphasized, those players have rehabilitated themselves.
In some cases, like that of former St. Louis Rams first-round tailback Lawrence Phillips, things don't work out nearly as well.
The minimum base salary in the CFL is $39,000 (Canadian) and Rita said a tailback of Ricky Williams' caliber could perhaps command a contract worth $70,000 to $150,000.
"I honestly don't know where it's going, if anywhere, but we'll see," Rita said. "If he wants an opportunity to keep playing and stay in shape while he serves [his suspension], we could offer him that. We still think he has a passion for the game. I mean, he's a hunting dog, and when it's time to play football, he's going to want something to chase."
A chance to play at a professional level, even in a league of lesser caliber, might actually be an advantage for Williams. The salary and competition are not at the NFL level, of course, but being in a structured setting and able to practice every day and maintain conditioning during his exile could be significant if he has plans of returning in 2007.
If he is reinstated by the NFL in 2007 and tries to return to the league without the benefit of any kind of serious conditioning program during his banishment, Williams might find another comeback even more difficult than his first. He would return as a 30-year-old running back who had appeared in just 12 games in three years. Life is difficult enough for a running back in the NFL once he turns 30. It would be especially difficult for Williams, given the rust he would have accumulated.
There are no guarantees, even given his statement this week that he plans to return for 2007, that Williams will actually want to resume his career when eligible for reinstatement.
The four-time 1,000-yard rusher returned to the Dolphins in 2005, served a four-game suspension for his past drug-related offenses and forfeited an additional four game checks as part of the sanctions against him. He then ran for 743 yards and six touchdowns while serving as the backup to rookie tailback Ronnie Brown, the team's first-round pick. Williams played in 12 games and started three of them.
For his career, Williams, the first-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints who was traded to Miami in 2002, has rushed for 7,097 yards and 47 touchdowns on 1,757 carries. The former University of Texas star has appeared in 82 games and started 73 times.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.