Last year, Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams had to share the spotlight in Auburn’s backfield. Now they’re sharing it again, this time with a running back who hasn’t played a meaningful game in nearly two years.
The attention will be on the ball carriers at Raymond James Stadium, though Ricky Williams will take much of it away from the reunion of Brown and “Cadillac” Williams when the Miami Dolphins face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Though Miami’s Brown and Tampa’s Williams, two of the top five picks in this year’s draft after standout seasons at Auburn, are likely to shoulder the ground games for their respective teams, the carries Ricky Williams gets will garner the most interest.
This is his first regular-season game since the end of the 2003 season, a year after he was the NFL’s leading rusher. Ricky Williams abruptly retired before the start of last season, angering many Miami teammates who went on to lose their first six games and finish 4-12.
“The thing they were most concerned about is that he had a commitment to come back and try to help the team be successful,” Dolphins coach Nick Saban said. “I think he showed that. The work he did since he was suspended has also earned him respect as far as how he goes about what he’s trying to do to help his team be successful.
“That issue has gone under the bridge, under the next bridge, over the next dam and is gone.”
Ricky Williams returned from retirement this summer and was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy. After leading the Dolphins with 126 yards rushing on 30 carries during the preseason, the enigmatic running back was limited to team meetings and lifting weights with other players as the regular season got underway.
Now he’ll take some carries away from Brown, the No. 2 overall pick who has rushed for a club rookie-record 229 yards in the past two weeks. Brown is the main reason the Dolphins are rushing for 118.5 yards per game, nearly double their average through four games last season.
Saban has not said exactly how much he’ll use Ricky Williams, though he will at times be in the same backfield with Brown.
“Maybe we can create some problems and issues for teams by doing that,” Saban said.
Tampa Bay hopes Ricky isn’t the only running back named Williams to play a significant role Sunday.
“Cadillac” had to sit out last week with foot and hamstring injuries, and the Buccaneers were dealt their first loss, 14-12 to the New York Jets.
One week earlier, the injuries limited “Cadillac” to 13 yards on 11 carries before he sat out the fourth quarter of a 17-13 win over Detroit. The Bucs averaged 76.5 yards rushing in the last two weeks, less than half their average through the first three games as “Cadillac” became the first player in NFL history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard games.
“The type of person that Carnell is, I know if there’s any way he can be out there, he’ll be out there because he wants to help the team. I know that’s the main thing for Carnell,” Brown said.
“At the same time, I think he’s going to make a good decision. If he feels like he’s not going to be as effective as he would, I don’t think he’ll jeopardize himself to do that.”
The absence of “Cadillac” forced Gruden to rely more on quarterback Brian Griese, who attempted 81 passes the last two weeks. That’s four more than he had in the first three games.
Griese, who went 3-2 as Miami’s starter in 2003, has thrown seven interceptions and had three others negated by penalties in the past two weeks.
“It’s been a combination of errant throws and bad decisions. We’ve had a couple of balls that could have been intercepted that weren’t,” Gruden said. “So, we’re not only looking at the balls that are officially on the stat sheet as interceptions, we’re looking at every ball that is thrown.”
Saban has had similar problems with his quarterback. Gus Frerotte has thrown five interceptions in four games and is completing an AFC-worst 54.5 percent of his passes.
Now Frerotte faces a Tampa defense that leads the NFL in yards allowed and has yet to give up more than 16 points.