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© 2004 The Beast

Wide Right By Matt Taibbi


RUN RICKY RUN


Point # 1 about the Ricky Williams business: this whole thing wouldn't have been such a big deal if the Miami Dolphins had bothered to put together an NFL offense. Or if Miami had won a playoff game since the first Bush administration. Or if they had drafted a single player besides Randy McMichael and Chris Chambers in the past five years who could actually play. Or if they had a coach who could beat a chimpanzee at Boggle.

Every year, at least a few NFL players with something left in the tank retire unexpectedly— and seemingly at the worst conceivable time— right at the start of training camp. It's a league tradition. Just in the last few years there are plenty of examples. Robert Brooks pulled it on the Packers in 2000. Then there was a succession of guards who decided they couldn't take the pounding anymore: Tom Nutten, former Buffalo Bill Joe Panos, Rich Tylski, Brenden Stai... Even this year, veteran corner Jeff Burris walked out on the Patriots on the first day of training camp— while Tyrone Poole almost pulled the same thing on the Pats last year before someone talked him out of it.

All these guys offered basically the same reason. They thought they were ready to go. But then, as they got closer to training camp, and the reality of six straight months getting punched in the face by oversized sex criminals loomed larger and larger, they just lost the nerve. Anyone who as a kid ever talked a lot about the roller coaster in the car on the ride to the park, only to wimp out at the front of the line, can easily understand this kind of thinking.

Ricky Williams was different for two reasons. The first is that he was a really big star. The second is that, unlike Nutten, Panos or Tylski, Williams' team is completely fucked without him. Williams is being blasted mainly for this second reason, on the grounds that if he had chosen a better time to retire, the Dolphins would have "had more options" and "could have done something."

Really? Like what? Miss the playoffs twice in a row? Trade a second-rounder for the immortal A.J. Feeley? To assume that the Dolphins would have been better off if Ricky had given them more time to act assumes that the Dolphins actually make good decisions when given time. The Dolphins are in the spot they're in because they have the worst front office and coaching staff in football, not because Ricky put them there.

Ricky screwed the Dolphins? Let's review a few things. Let's just take, for instance, the last game of the 2002 regular season. The Fish are 9-6 and in control of their destiny. All they have to do to get in the playoffs is beat the New England Patriots, who have the NFL's 28th-worst rushing defense and have just come off consecutive spankings at the hands of the Jets and the Titans.

The Dolphins come out big. They spend the entire first half running the Oklahoma offense at the Patriots. Student body left, student body right, student body up the middle. Ricky has over 100 yards at the half. With six minutes left they are up 24-13. They are pounding the shit out of the Patriots. But then their vaunted defense gives up a few big plays, and a questionable P.I. call on Sam Madison plus a pass in the flat gets the Pats in the end zone.

Now it's 24-19. On the 2-point conversion, the Pats run a naked bootleg with only one receiver, Christian Fauria, in the end zone. The Dolphins, naturally, don't cover him. 24-21.

Now comes the fun part. The Dolphins get the ball back on their own three. Ricky at this point has 185 yards rushing. He has been completely unstoppable, making it to the secondary on virtually every play. All the Dolphins have to do is get one first down to win the game. So what does Dave Wannstedt do? He calls three straight Jay Fielder scrambles, all incompletes. Almost no time goes off the clock. A few minutes later Adam Vinatieri kicks the Fish out of the playoffs in overtime.

But that was nothing compared to what happened after the game. Already in possession of one of the best defenses in the league, the Dolphins in the offseason went out and threw the bulk of their free agent money at two has-been defensive Pro Bowlers— Sammy Knight and Junior Seau. They keep the same shitty quarterback and same shitty receivers and same extremely shitty offensive line. They have six months to fix their team's problems on offense and yet they still go into camp in 2003 with the cast of Fried Green Tomatoes blocking for Ricky. Then they hand the ball to him 5000 times during that season, employing a strategy of "letting our defense win."

Meanwhile— and this is no small issue— they do absolutely nothing to prepare for the possible loss of Williams. Every team in the league has at least one capable backup running back and usually two. The Packers have about nine. The Bengals survived when Corey Dillon blew up last year because they had behaved like sober professionals and prepared for that possibility. Even the idiot Jets have a couple of good running backs.

Not Miami. Miami literally does not have even one backup three-down tailback. They are not even one of those teams that has some intriguing guy from Morehouse State or Tusculum playing in NFL Europe. They didn't draft a running back. They don't have one on their practice squad. They apparently assumed that they could just hand the ball to a high-collision back 300 times a year, he wouldn't get hurt, and everything would just sort of work out.

Would you want to take a beating for people like this?

Sportswriters, and especially sports radio talk show hosts, really showed their cards with the Ricky story. Fat men who would run screaming from an elderly woman with a rolling pin are out there insisting that Ricky owes it to his teammates to run it up the gut for another year. They are treating it like a case of military desertion, in no small part because Americans increasingly see blind loyalty to one's stupid, evil company as an important moral attribute. It isn't. And when the bosses are idiots, everyone has the right to quit— even Ricky.

 

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