Williams helps keep Dolphins playoff hopes alive

Published 6:02 am Friday, December 25, 2009

The last time Ricky Williams rushed for 1,000 yards he was 26 years old and his NFL career hadn’t yet taken all the twists and turns that made him more notable for his life off the field than on it.

When he reached the milestone last weekend he set an NFL record for longest span between 1,000-yard seasons — six years.

“It seems like it was another lifetime ago,” Williams said of that 2003 season when he ran for 1,372 yards before abruptly retiring from football. “I’ve been through so much and I’ve done so much outside of football as well as in football that it seems like a long time.”

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At 32, his resurgence has helped absorb the loss of Ronnie Brown and keep the Dolphins playoff hopes alive heading into Sunday’s game against Houston. Williams has 1,055 yards rushing, 11 rushing touchdowns and two TD catches. His 4.8 yards per carry average is tied for a career high that he set when he ran for an NFL-leading 1,853 yards in 2002.

“I’m having more fun with it,” he said. “I think as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been away from the game, I think I appreciate this opportunity more than I have in the past.”

At an age when most running backs see their production plummet, Williams’ play this season has conjured memories of the hard-running style that helped him win the Heisman Trophy at Texas and rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of the first four seasons of this decade.

Coach Tony Sparano believes Williams’ success this season is a tribute to the way he prepares and conditions.

“He seems to be handling it and holding up very well,” Sparano said. “He’s had two really good off seasons in a row and that’s something of course Ricky missed some time prior to us getting here … he’s in probably the best shape he’s been in an awful lot of years. I think that has a lot to do with how he’s played.”

Williams enjoys hearing people say he doesn’t look his age on the field, but does admit to being a little beat up after carrying the ball 219 times this season.

“I don’t feel 32,” he said. “When I’m on the field I still feel explosive and in my mind it’s the same way I remember when I was 22. The biggest difference is I’ve learned over these years how to do a better job taking care of myself and making that a priority.”

Twenty-four-year-old receiver Davone Bess has been impressed with Williams.

“He’s a player we lean on, especially in big situations,” Bess said. “I don’t even look at it like he’s 32. I look at like he’s the same old Ricky Williams I used to watch when I was in high school.”

His work this season has some people wondering what he could have been if he wouldn’t have took time off from football. He’s not one of those people and says he doesn’t regret his decision to retire.

“To me life is for living and not just making money or doing what people think you’re supposed to do and I’ve been able to live my life to the fullest and I’ve been lucky enough to have this opportunity to come back and continue to play football,” he said.

When Williams returned to football after the retirement and subsequent drug suspensions, his motivation certainly had something to do with earning a fat NFL paycheck. But also on his mind was rebuilding a legacy that was tarnished by his off the field decisions and building back his name for his children’s sake.

“It’s been fun this year because my kids are old enough to watch the games and to go to school and hear stuff that their friends have to say about me and it’s all positive,” he said. “As far as what happened in the past, I guess the kids that go to school with my kids aren’t old enough to remember and talk to them about it.”

Williams has rushed for 100 yards four times this season, pushing his team record total to 24. When Williams runs well it often means the Dolphins are winning as Miami is 20-4 in those games.

In a loss to the Saints, he tied a career high with three rushing touchdowns, including a career long 68-yard run.

Williams has to remind himself to relish his work this year instead of going with his inclination to be hard on himself and think about all the ways he could have done more.

“But when I take a step back and I look at what I’ve been able to accomplish this year, and half the year I was a backup, I just think as far as touchdowns and having the longest run of my career, average yards per carry, I’m putting up numbers that I never put up before,” he said. “So it’s a credit to the team here and our offensive line and taking care of yourself. Being 32 as a football player, as a running back doesn’t mean anything unless you allow it to.”

Though Williams is running like he did in his 20s, he still plans to retire after the 2010 season. He also plans to return to his backup role next season when Brown is healthy.

His goal is to play in a Super Bowl before he retires, but first he has to help Miami beat Houston to keep the Dolphins in the postseason race.

“That’s what we’re here for and I think as you go through a season and you look for motivation I think the way our coach makes it for us is getting into the playoffs is our No. 1 motivation,” Williams said. “Some guys at this point in the season that are in our position, they talk about playing for pride. That’s not us. We’re playing for the playoffs.”