The Miami Dolphins were coming off a 10-6 record in 2003 and were poised to get back to the playoffs after having missed them the previous two seasons. Miami was in the middle of a span of 11 seasons of winning football in 12 years spanning the end of the Don Shula era, the entire Jimmy Johnson era, and the start of the Dave Wannstedt period. The Dolphins were trending upwards, and it appeared a dominant defense and a power running game would carry them throughout the 2004 season.
Then, just as training camp prepared to open, the wheels all fell of for Miami. What had appeared to be Miami's time instead became a 4-12 season and a fired head coach. Since that moment 11 years ago, the Dolphins have only had two winning seasons, 2005's 9-7 record and 2008's 11-5 season. Only that 2008 team made it to the playoffs, where they lost in the Wildcard round.
What changed the Dolphins' 2004 outlook? Ricky Wiliams.
The enigma that is Ricky Williams is one familiar to all Dolphins fans. The man who used to do locker room interviews while wearing his helmet because of social anxiety, was a star in Miami, and was the workhorse on the field. In 2002, his first year with the Dolphins, Williams ran for 1,853 yards on 383 attempts, leading the league in both categories and earning a Pro Bowl berth as well as a First-Team All-Pro selection. To back that up, he carried the ball more in 2003, nearly reaching 400 attempts to lead the league again with 392 carries.
Wannstedt had his power back, and he was going to use him for everything he was worth.
And that's where the problems began. Williams was an amazing runnning back. He could run with power. He could make defenders miss. He was everything you would want in a running back, and he was made to be a feature back in the NFL.
He was not made to be the only source of offense for a team.
In 2002, with Williams leading the legaue in rushing yards, Miami used three different quarterbacks, Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, and Sage Rosenfels, to tally 3,069 yards passing, with 18 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a 59.6-percent completion rate. Williams had more than half the yardage and nearly as many touchdowns (16) on his own.
In 2003, Williams would tally 1,372 yards with nine touchdowns. The combination of Fiedler, Rosenfels, and Brian Griese, had 3,001 yards with 17 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, with a 57.1-percent completion rate.
Miami came into 2004 with Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, and Rosenfels set to be the quarterbacks. Williams was once again going to be asked to carry the ball close to 400 times. Mentally he could not do it.
In July, just two days before training camp was to begin, Williams announced his retirement. He had been suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for marijuana, his second positive test, and rumors indicated there may have been a third positive.
Williams has been the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 special, looking into his retirement from, and subsequent return to, the Dolphins. Now, he will be getting the NFL Network A Football Life treatment as well. During the soon-to-be aired episode, Williams looks back at his decision to retire, and what led to him walking away from the game in the prime of his career.
"I led the NFL in attempts the past two years and they really didn't go out and get a quarterback to help me, so I knew it's going to be all on me again," Williams explains,according to Around the NFL's Conor Orr. "I could see my mortality as a football player, that I'm not going to be able to do this much longer. It just became obvious to me that playing football for me is not going to be fun, not something I'm going to enjoy and it's time for me to do something different."
Williams knew, with Fiedler, Feeley, and Rosenfels at quarterback, the Dolphins would once again rely solely on their running game. Wannstedt would run Williams into the ground, and Williams knew he could not do it for a third straight year. Football for Williams was supposed to be fun, not work, and Wannstedt made it work.
While all of us were frustrated by Williams' retirement, especially in a way that clearly hurt the Dolphins at the time, in the years since, Dolphins fans have come to better understand the unique individual that is Williams, and see the workload Wannstedt was asking of his star running back. The Dolphins were running Williams into the ground, and, while they were clearly not sold on any of the quarterbacks on the roster, they continued to try to piece together the position with questionable talent. Williams' frustration with the team for not better addressing the quarterbak position is understandable, even if his actions were not done in the best way possible.
The A Football Life episode featuring Williams will debut this Friday at 9pm ET. What better night for the Ricky Williams episode than Halloween?