KAPALUA, Hawaii, March 22 -- Nick Saban, the new head coach of the Miami Dolphins, left open the possibility of running back Ricky Williams returning to the team he deserted last July, two weeks before the start of training camp.
Saban confirmed at the NFL's annual winter meetings that two weeks ago he had his first conversation with Williams since taking over as coach in December. He said he told Williams: " 'It's your decision if you want to come back to play. If you make that choice, you'll have the opportunity to do that.' He's obviously a productive player. He has issues surrounding him, and we would have to work through those issues. Whether he wants to work through it is his decision."
Williams led the league in rushing in 2002, gaining 1,853 yards for the Dolphins, and added 1,372 yards in 2003. He has cited many reasons for leaving the team over the last nine months, including his unwillingness to give up smoking marijuana, unhappiness with the offense and his role in it and a desire for a new contract. In October, an arbitrator ruled he had to return an $8.6 million signing bonus, and a federal judge upheld that decision last month.
If Williams, who reportedly weighs about 30 pounds less than his playing weight of 226 pounds, does return, he likely will face a four-game suspension for testing positive a third time for marijuana. Under league rules, he would not be allowed to return to the team until July.
The Dolphins also could bring him back, then trade him. "The guy has value to the organization," Saban said. "It would be very counterproductive to turn your back on all that. If he showed he was committed to coming back and wanting to be a productive player, that's the only issue with me."
When Williams left the team, a number of teammates criticized his decision and said they could not envision playing with him again. Saban said he has spoken with several team leaders about the possibility of Williams returning.
"People make emotional decisions and say emotional things when they happen," he said. "We all do. I'm not saying what happened is okay, but I wasn't here when that happened. The leadership on the team I've spoken with is interested in the same thing I'm interested in -- if he can help us win, that's something we're interested in."
The Dolphins have the No. 2 pick in the draft, and Saban and his staff have been looking at college and free agent running backs. Sammy Morris led the team in rushing in 2004 with 523 yards, and the Dolphins were ranked 31st in rushing offense. The team finished 4-12, and then-coach Dave Wannstedt resigned at midseason.
Williams has spent the last nine months in a variety of places. He lived in a tent in Australia, toured with rock star Lenny Kravitz, visited India and Asia and studied holistic medicine in California. The Miami Herald reported last week he had told friends he has given up marijuana. The newspaper also reported Saban told him the team would provide counseling if he wanted it.
"If he made a commitment to saying he wanted to come relative to his circumstances with the league and all the other things, we would be supportive of that," Saban said. "This is just not my concern; everyone involved in this is concerned.
"It's a work in progress. There's no end point to it. There are a lot of issues relative to the personal and professional that he really needs to make decisions on. We're going to facilitate and help you out to make those decisions, and we'll support you relative to that. . . . We're trying to support someone who may or may not be committed to doing what he's capable of doing. . . . That person has value. . . . We're not shutting the door on him. The lines of communication have been opened."
Williams, who reportedly is in India, could not be reached to comment.
NFL Notes: As expected, the league's Super Bowl advisory committee recommended to the owners that the 2010 Super Bowl be played in Manhattan, contingent on the New York Jets building a stadium with a retractable roof. The stadium issue, including $600 million in public funds the Jets would need to build it, has become a political flashpoint in New York and has yet to be resolved. The owners must approve the recommendation by a three-fourths vote that will be taken Wednesday. . . .
The league announced 32 compensatory draft choices have been awarded to 14 teams. A team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it signed -- players who cost them a draft choice because they were restricted free agents -- are eligible to receive compensatory picks. The Redskins were not among the 14 teams; the Ravens received one, in the sixth round. Philadelphia and St. Louis got the most picks, four each, with Carolina, New England and San Francisco getting three each. . . .
The league said total compensation in the third year of performance-based bonuses increased by 78 percent, to more than $57 million in 2004. The bonuses are based on a comparison of playing time to salary, which means low draft picks tend to top the list. The $57 million fund gave $1.78 million to each team, and it is expected to grow to $79 million for 2005 and $100 million for 2006. Jets safety Erik Coleman topped all players, earning an extra $227,625.