The NFL's position on Ricky Williams's playing status didn't change following Thursday's meeting in the Los Angeles area with attorney David Cornwell, who represents the retired Miami Dolphins tailback. Two NFL sources said this morning that the league still considers Williams ineligible to play this season under provisions of its substance-abuse policy.
The league will consider the formal proposal that Cornwell plans to submit on Williams's behalf but has heard no evidence that would allow Williams to play this season, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because deliberations with Williams's representatives are ongoing.
Williams, who abruptly left the Dolphins just before training camp, wants to play again, his representatives have said. Cornwell said Thursday he is seeking to have Williams reinstated "as soon as possible." Williams's representatives continue to dispute the validity of one of the running back's positive drug tests. Sources said this morning that the league continues to regard the disputed test as valid.
Williams reportedly has tested positive for marijuana three times, including once last December and once after that. Under terms of the NFL's substance-abuse policy, a third positive drug test results in a four-game suspension without pay, and a fourth positive test results in a one-year suspension. Williams reportedly was facing a four-game suspension at the outset of this season for his most recent positive test, his third.
The policy also includes a rule that if a player who has at least one positive test retires and then returns in less than a year, he's charged with an additional violation of the policy. In Williams's case, that would serve as the equivalent of a fourth positive test, bringing a one-year suspension. The provision is in place to prevent players in the program from using short-term retirements to avoid further positive tests, because retired players aren't tested.
So if Williams returns from his retirement now, he would face first a four-game suspension, then a one-year suspension and would not be eligible to play until late next season But if he waits until July to return from his retirement, the provision that would result in the one-year suspension would not apply to him. He would face only the four-game suspension and would be eligible to play in his team's fifth game of next season.
In April, Williams appealed his second positive test from December through Cornwell and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., attorney Gary Ostrow, but the league rejected the appeal last summer.
"The only test that I'm going to have any discussion about is the one that was subject to an appeal in April," Cornwell said by telephone Thursday. "The league made its determination. We object to that determination."
Cornwell maintained publicly Thursday that Williams retired because of the dispute over the positive test. Sources said this morning the league believes that Cornwell made that claim so he could construct an argument that if the test indeed is invalid, Williams should be cleared to play immediately because his retirement therefore should be considered invalid as well, if it resulted from a false positive test. Williams has given many reasons for his retirement, including his contract, the way he was used by the Dolphins, a lack of desire to continue playing football and a reluctance to change his lifestyle to adhere to the NFL's policies.
If Williams remains ineligible to play until next season, the Dolphins could try to trade him during the offseason. NFL teams cannot make trades until March. This season's trading deadline passed Tuesday. If Williams is ruled eligible to play this season and returns to the Dolphins, the team would have to release him if it doesn't want him back.
Under a ruling by arbitrator Richard Bloch, Williams owes the Dolphins $8.6 million for breach of contract, even if he returns to play. Williams's only leverage in the entire matter now might be the threat of him filing for bankruptcy in Florida in an attempt to have his contract with the Dolphins voided, making him a free agent. Cornwell declined to comment Thursday on that possibility, saying: "I'm retained to represent Ricky in connection with his desire to resume his career. I'm not involved in that."
Cornwell also declined to comment when asked about any discussions he's had with the Dolphins.
NFL Management Council attorneys Dennis Curran and Rapheal Prevot represented the league at Thursday's meeting, and NFL Players Association executive Stacy Robinson also attended.
Attorneys Remain At Odds
Ostrow and Cornwell continue to bicker in the wake of Cornwell's Oct. 7 letter to Ostrow threatening action with the Florida State Bar. Ostrow sent Cornwell a blistering response faulting him for, among other things, the original letter being obtained by The Washington Post and reported in the NFL Insider column last Friday.
Ostrow wrote in his response that he resented the implication in Cornwell's letter that his sworn testimony that he was not the source of a media report about Williams's latest positive test was not accurate. Ostrow wrote that Williams "waived much, if not all of his confidentiality when he went public with his personal story through" comments to the Miami Herald, and he said that Cornwell's contributions to Williams's appeal did not justify his fees. Ostrow wrote that he conducted the appeal hearing "exclusively" and did not believe Cornwell's excuse for showing up late and failing to participate.
"I have never met someone like yourself whose ego and arrogance unequivocally interferes with your ability to serve your client," Ostrow wrote. "While you incessantly demanded more fees, beyond the original agreement, you were of absolutely no help with regard to the merit of the case or the brief, which I undertook myself. In addition, you had absolutely zero input when I inquired as to your input for the brief and further, the one thing you did question was already addressed in the brief. . . . Tell me how you served Mr. Williams by not even advising me of the precedent I could research and rely on in my development of the brief. Your ego is way too big to do anything [other] than point out what you incorrectly believed was an omission. Go ahead and do what you have to do. . . . Your threats are transparent as are your abilities."
In response, Cornwell wrote back to Ostrow: "My initial reaction was not to respond. Instead, I will simply note that the facts speak for themselves. Besides that, no further response or acknowledgement of you is necessary . . . or advisable."
In his Oct. 7 letter to Ostrow, Cornwell wrote that Williams had severed his attorney/client relationship with Ostrow in May, but Ostrow was ethically required to maintain Williams's confidences in perpetuity and had been directed to have no further communication with any third party regarding the subject matter of his prior representation of Williams.
Cornwell wrote then that Ostrow had "once again breached [your] ethical obligations to Mr. Williams," and added: "I do not intend to permit you to compromise Mr. Williams' interests or interfere in my efforts to represent Mr. Williams' best interests."
Falcons Get Boost
It's not often that a team with a 5-1 record gets to suddenly add a first-round draft pick to its lineup. But that's the position the Atlanta Falcons are in, with rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall set to make his NFL regular season debut Sunday at Kansas City. Hall, the eighth overall choice in April's draft out of Virginia Tech, has been sidelined since suffering a fractured hip in the preseason. He has practiced this week and is scheduled to ease his way into the playing rotation with about 20 snaps against the Chiefs, unless injuries to other players force him to be on the field more extensively.
"He's been saying, 'I'm ready. I'm ready. I'm ready,' " Falcons Coach Jim Mora Jr. said during a midweek news briefing. "And that's pretty natural for a player. Competitors, they want to get on the field and play. I think that our medical staff did a tremendous job of just monitoring where he was in reality and making sure he's 100 percent. You know, he's still a young kid so we certainly, as an organization, don't want to jeopardize the future of his career by putting him out there too early. He feels ready to go. Our medical staff has cleared him. . . .
"You don't need to just throw him right back in there. Our corners are playing fairly well. We're playing fairly well defensively. So we just want to spot him, get him some snaps in our nickel and dime [packages with five and six defensive backs], maybe some snaps in base and bring him back gradually. The one thing that may be lacking is just the football endurance, the contact that you can't get when you're out there working, running the hill and doing the things with the heavy ball [to get in shape]. So we'll just have to see where he is in terms of his football endurance as we go. But we're not going to try to hold him back too much. We want to let him go naturally."
Mora said it's possible that Hall could earn a spot in the Falcons' starting lineup after the club's early-November bye week. That could depend on whether Hall regains the speed that made him the top cornerback in the draft.
One of the biggest differences between last season's 13-3 Chiefs and this season's 1-4 version is the diminished contributions on punt and kickoff returns by Dante Hall.
Last season, Hall's kick-return exploits made him one of the league's most valuable players. He tied an NFL season record with four touchdowns on kick returns, scoring twice on punt returns and twice on kickoff returns during the regular season, then added another kickoff-return touchdown in the playoffs. He averaged 16.3 yards on his 29 punt returns and 25.9 yards on his 57 kickoff returns during the 2003 regular season.
This season, Hall has been pressed into more extensive duties on offense at wideout because of injuries to the Chiefs' other receivers and the club's failure to find other replacements. He doesn't have a special-teams touchdown and has averaged 10.3 yards on his six punt returns and 20.9 yards on his 15 kickoff returns. Still, the Falcons and other opponents remain wary.
"The guy has the ability to explode at any moment," Mora said this week. "Every time he touches the ball, he poses a threat to all the way."
Culpepper On Record-Shattering Pace
No one is taking better advantage of this season's passing-friendly rules than Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. He has thrown for 1,766 yards and 18 touchdowns (with only three interceptions) in the Vikings' five games. He has completed 72.2 percent of his passes and has a passer rating of 127.0. He's had four straight games with more than 340 passing yards each (including a 425-yard performance last weekend) and three games with five touchdown passes apiece (including his last two outings).
At his current pace, Culpepper would finish the season with 5,651 passing yards and 58 touchdown passes.
The NFL's single-season records are 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdown passes, both by Dan Marino for the Dolphins in 1984. The highest single-season completion percentage is 70.55 by Cincinnati's Ken Anderson in 1982, and the highest passer rating for a season is 112.8 by Steve Young for San Francisco in 1994. Rich Gannon has the record for most 300-yard passing games in a season, with 10 for Oakland in 2002. The record for consecutive 300-yard passing games is six, held by Gannon, Young and Kurt Warner.
Culpepper also is on pace to finish the season with 432 completions. The record is Gannon's 418 in 2002.
Culpepper this weekend can match the league records for fewest games to reach 2,000 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes in a season.
Bears a Couch Case?
Quarterback Tim Couch traveled to Chicago on Thursday and is scheduled to undergo a physical and work out for the Bears today. If all goes well, he could be signed by the Bears soon to join a quarterback mix that, following a season-ending knee injury to starter Rex Grossman, now includes Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson.
Couch and his representatives believed that the Bears represented a better opportunity for him than he had with other teams -- including Indianapolis, which has expressed interest in him as a prospective backup to Peyton Manning. Couch was released by Green Bay before the season after he struggled to learn the Packers' offense and was plagued by a sore arm in training camp and the preseason. The former top overall selection in the draft was signed by the Packers following his offseason release by Cleveland. He has filed a grievance against the Packers alleging that they improperly released him while he was injured, but apparently feels he's healthy enough to play now.
The Bears might keep four quarterback on their roster if they sign Couch. Coach Lovie Smith is withholding an announcement, perhaps until shortly before game time, about whether Quinn or Krenzel, a rookie, will start Sunday against Tampa Bay. Quinn appears to be the front-runner to keep the job for at least one more game. He inherited the starting duties from Grossman but has struggled mightily, and he and Krenzel have split the work with the starting offense in practices this week. Hutchinson, who was signed after Grossman's injury, still is learning the offense. Quinn perhaps could be in jeopardy of being released if he loses the starting job and the Bears sign Couch.
Davis Still Hurting
Carolina tailback Stephen Davis sat out the Panthers' practices Wednesday and Thursday because of soreness and swelling in his surgically repaired knee. Davis rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries in last Sunday's loss at Philadelphia in his return to the lineup after missing three games following arthroscopic knee surgery, but this week's flare-up has the Panthers uncertain about his status for Sunday's game against San Diego. They expect to have linebacker Mark Fields back in their lineup, though, after he missed almost all of the last three games because of back spasms. . . .
Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter could make the first start of his second go-around with the Eagles at Cleveland on Sunday. Starter Mark Simoneau has a sprained foot. . . .
Oakland's wide receivers continue to provide headaches for first-year Raiders coach Norv Turner. Jerry Rice was traded to Seattle on Tuesday after weeks of complaining about his reduced role in the offense. But Jerry Porter told reporters Thursday he was upset about reports that the club tried to trade him before Tuesday's trading deadline, and he plans to exercise his option to void the final year of his contract and become a free agent in the spring. . . .
NFL runners continue to thrive. This season's 57 individual 100-yard rushing games are seven more than the previous record for the first six weeks of a season. Teams with a 100-yard rusher this season have a record of 44-13. . . .
Denver's latest tailback sensation, Reuben Droughns, has amassed 369 rushing yards in the Broncos' last two games. Before that, he was a fullback who had 30 rushing yards this season and 127 rushing yards in an NFL career that began with Detroit in 2000.