Buccaneers 27, Dolphins 13
Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams stood in front of his locker at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, slipping a necklace of wooden beads and a medallion over his dreadlocks and bushy beard.
"You know why beads were started, don't you?" Williams asked, with all the seriousness of Nick Saban, his head coach. "They were used to count your prayers."
Fortunately for Williams, beads aren't used to count his carries or rushing yards, or his necklace would be much smaller. In his first NFL game in more than 21 months, Williams was barely a factor against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, running five times for eight yards during the Dolphins' 27-13 loss in front of a crowd of 65,168.
"It felt good," Williams said. "It felt like I was never away."
But Williams was far, far away from football during his nearly two-year exile from the sport. After abruptly leaving the Dolphins before training camp last year, he spent much of the next 10 months traveling the world.
While away from football, Williams did everything from spend a month in an ashram in India to living in a tent in Australia for a month with a guy named "Mystic Steve." He studied holistic healing at a small college in California and spent time traveling with Lenny Kravitz on his world tour.
"I'm a very different person now," Williams said. "I think if all of us look at our lives two or three years ago, we're much different. I'm a better person. I love life. I love what I'm doing."
Saban and the Dolphins are more concerned about Williams being a capable runner. The Dolphins welcomed him back after an arbitrator ruled he owed the team $8.6 million for breach of contract. Then Williams was suspended by the NFL for the first four games this season for failing drug tests three times before he retired.
Williams and rookie Ronnie Brown, the No. 2 choice in April's NFL draft from Auburn, both started in the backfield against the Buccaneers. Williams was the target on the Dolphins' first offensive play, as he caught a one-yard pass from Gus Frerotte and was leveled by linebacker Ryan Nece.
Williams's longest run was only four yards -- a 13-yard burst was wiped out by a holding call -- and he caught six passes for 22 yards. After the Buccaneers went ahead 27-6 late in the third quarter on Michael Pittman's 57-yard run and Will Allen's 33-yard return of Frerotte's fumble, Saban still seemed very interested in getting Williams involved.
So on fourth and one from the Tampa Bay 5 with about 11 minutes to go, Frerotte lined up at wide receiver and Williams was alone in the backfield. He took a direct snap from center Seth McKinney and ran toward left guard, but was stopped for no gain by Allen and defensive end Greg Spires.
"I wasn't disappointed with the way he played at all," Saban said. "His best run got called back because of a penalty, but he looked great. He looked fast and made the right cuts. I don't think he played bad at all for his first time out of the box. He didn't have an opportunity to do much else."
Still, Saban admits he has to find a better way to get Brown and Williams involved in the offense more. Brown, who had run for 229 yards in the past two games after a slow start, ran nine times for 22 yards and one touchdown against the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers needed every bit of their defense after losing quarterback Brian Greise to a sprained left knee with 3 minutes 43 seconds left in the first half. Pittman, who started in place of injured rookie Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, ran for 127 yards on 15 carries. Backup quarterback Chris Simms completed 6 of 10 passes for 69 yards.
But most of the attention still was on Williams, who hurt his back during the second quarter but continued to play. Afterward, he said he worried his return would disrupt Brown's development or the offense's rhythm.
After running for more than 3,200 yards and 25 touchdowns for the Dolphins during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, he doesn't consider himself a starting running back anymore, and really didn't express the desire to become one in the future, either.
"I think I'm the extremely low man on the totem pole," Williams said. "I appreciate them trying to not make me feel that way. It's just something I've got to get used to and find a way to enjoy. If you look at the way Ronnie plays, even if you take me out of the equation, I don't think there's anybody that could come in and replace him. They spent a number two pick on him, so he's the future."
Williams said he is comfortable in the backup role and isn't out to prove that he can still be a dominant rusher. Without carrying the enormous expectations of others, Williams said the game was more enjoyable for him, despite his less-than-spectacular production.
"It was more enjoyable today than it was in the past because I was able to take a step back and take it all in," Williams said. "If I had expectations, I'd have been disappointed. I just wanted to come out here and have a good time. I had fun. Aside from losing, it was fun."
And, afterward, Williams held his beads, not worried about what he didn't do in a game that once seemed so easy.
"I don't think football was made to be worshipped," Williams said, "but killing pigs probably was."