Tailback Ricky Williams probably will play in the NFL next season, but it likely will be for a team other than the Miami Dolphins. Several people familiar with the case said this week they expect the Dolphins to trade the retired running back before he returns to the league.

Williams, who abruptly retired just before the Dolphins opened training camp, has put in motion the process by which he would return to football. He has sent a letter to the league asking for a clarification of his playing status, but the NFL has not yet responded. Leigh Steinberg, Williams's agent, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that Williams wants to play again and has asked him "to explore and to try to facilitate his return.''

But under the provisions of the NFL's substance-abuse policy, Williams is barred from playing this season. Under league rules, if a player who already is in the program, like Williams, retires and then returns in less than a year, he is charged with an additional violation of the program. In Williams's case, that would be his fourth violation of the program, which generally would result in a one-year suspension. So the only way for Williams to play this season would be for the NFL to waive that provision.

Even if Williams waits until next season to return, he likely is facing a four-game suspension for his third violation of the program. He reportedly was facing that suspension at the outset of this season if he hadn't retired.

The winless Dolphins have not found an effective runner to replace Williams and certainly could use a player of his caliber to jump-start their offense. They have scored only 32 points while losing their first four games of the season and are averaging only 2.7 yards per rushing attempt. The tailback they obtained in a trade with the St. Louis Rams to replace Williams, Lamar Gordon, is on the injured reserve list because of a season-ending shoulder injury.

It has been widely assumed that Williams would return to football by next season. Steinberg left open the possibility of a return by Williams soon after his retirement. But it seems unlikely that the relationship between Williams and the Dolphins could be repaired sufficiently for him to resume his career in Miami. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga reportedly was furious when Williams retired and doesn't want him back. Some Dolphins players criticized Williams's decision to leave the team so soon before the season, and it would be difficult for the Dolphins to try to reinsert Williams into their locker room and maintain peace. Williams previously has cited the way he was used by the Dolphins among the reasons for his retirement, and has said he would like to play for the Oakland Raiders.

An arbitrator last month ordered Williams to repay the Dolphins $8.6 million because of provisions in his contract requiring him to reimburse the club for past incentives paid to him and portions of his original signing bonus given to him by the New Orleans Saints if he refuses to play. Williams's associates maintain that Williams does not have the means to repay the Dolphins that amount and might be forced into bankruptcy proceedings if the ruling by arbitrator Richard Bloch stands. People familiar with the bankruptcy process say it's possible, if not likely, that Williams's contract with the Dolphins would be voided, making him a free agent, if he goes into bankruptcy. A trustee would be appointed with the duty of finding a way to maximize Williams's income to enable him to pay off debts, and the best way to maximize his income would be to allow him to sign a new contract with another team that includes a sizable signing bonus.

So the possibilities open to the Williams camp included trying to broker a deal with the Dolphins by which Williams would repay a portion of the $8.6 million and the club would agree to trade or release him; or forcing the Dolphins' hand by returning to the team and seeing if the club remains adamant about not wanting him back and trades or releases him. Williams's letter to the NFL could be the first step in an attempt to force the Dolphins' hand and get the team to trade him. As long as Williams remains ineligible to play this season, however, the Dolphins would be under no pressure to move quickly. Williams's trade value is greatly diminished at this point, but it's likely that at least a few teams would be interested.

Dolphins officials declined to comment on Williams's latest move, saying it was a matter between Williams, his representatives and the league at this point.

Extension for Light

The New England Patriots signed left tackle Matt Light to a six-year, $27-million contract extension. The deal includes $9 million in bonuses and runs through the 2010 season. He would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. Light, 26, has made 44 consecutive regular season starts for the Patriots at left tackle and has started 47 of the 49 games in which he's played since New England selected him in the second round of the 2001 draft out of Purdue. He has started both of the Patriots' Super Bowl triumphs. . . .

The Jacksonville Jaguars plan to keep veteran Ephraim Salaam as their starter at left tackle, at least for now, even after signing longtime Atlanta Falcons starting left tackle Bob Whitfield on Tuesday. Salaam took over at the spot after starter Mike Pearson suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Jaguars' loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday in Jacksonville. Pearson was placed on the injured reserve list Tuesday. Whitfield was released by the Falcons just before the season and declined an invitation by the club to return soon thereafter.

Bucs Make QB Switch

The winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a quarterback switch today from veteran Brad Johnson to youngster Chris Simms, who is slated to make his first NFL start Sunday at New Orleans.

Coach Jon Gruden had left open the possibility earlier in the week of a move from Johnson to Brian Griese or Simms. Griese, a former starter in Denver, was Johnson's backup most recently, but Simms was informed today that he was the choice.

The second-year pro is the team's quarterback of the future. He was sent in by Gruden to relieve Johnson early in a Week 2 loss to Seattle. He completed 21 of 32 passes for 175 yards but threw an interception, was sacked four times, lost a costly fumble and failed to get the Buccaneers into the end zone. Still, the Bucs seem firmly in rebuilding mode, even if they won't admit it, and it makes sense for Gruden to get Simms as much experience as possible heading into next season and beyond. Simms, the son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, didn't play at all as a rookie last season after being drafted in the third round out of Texas.

Johnson's demotion probably marks the beginning of the end of his stay in Tampa. He's 36 and doesn't fit into any long-term retooling projects. It's possible that the Buccaneers could shop him around the league before the NFL's Oct. 19 trading deadline. There was speculation before the season that the team would offer Johnson to the Baltimore Ravens if Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon became available and chose to reunite with Gruden, his former Raiders coach, in Tampa. But that scenario never unfolded because the Raiders held on to Gannon, now sidelined by a broken vertebra in his neck.

Johnson is close to Ravens Coach Brian Billick from their days together in Minnesota, and nearly signed with Baltimore when he was a free agent prior to the 2001 season. But the two sides couldn't complete a deal. The Ravens made an ill-fated signing by getting fellow free agent Elvis Grbac instead, while Johnson went to Tampa and became a Super Bowl winner in his second season with the Buccaneers.

The Ravens rank last in the league in passing offense, failing to upgrade after also ranking last in the NFL in that category last season. Kyle Boller, the Ravens' young starting quarterback, is only the NFL's 27th-rated passer. But that's only three spots behind Johnson. And the Ravens resisted all temptations to sign a high-profile veteran quarterback in the offseason, like Kerry Collins, and brought in Kordell Stewart as a minimum-salary free agent to back up Boller only after it was determined that Anthony Wright had a serious shoulder injury.

It's doubtful that the Ravens or any other team could fit a prorated portion of Johnson's $3.25 million salary for this season beneath the salary cap, or that any club would want to surrender much to the Buccaneers to get Johnson. Johnson's contract has two seasons remaining after this one, for salaries of $5.75 million in 2005 and $6.75 million in 2006. More likely, Johnson will be left finding a new team in the offseason. . . .

The Kansas City Chiefs released fill-in punter Jason Baker, believing that regular punter Steve Cheek will be ready to return from a calf injury by the time the team next plays in 11 days. . . . Tennessee wide receiver Tyrone Calico is to be sidelined at least two weeks because of torn cartilage in his left knee. He is to undergo further tests and could be out as long as 10 weeks if further damage is found. Calico originally injured the knee during the preseason and underwent surgery, then re-injured it in Sunday's loss at San Diego. . . . The Giants placed Shaun Williams on the injured reserve list and signed fellow safety Curry Burns off New England's practice squad. . . . Cincinnati signed safety Anthony Mitchell, who formerly played for Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis in Baltimore.