All over New Orleans billboards show Ricky Williams, dreadlocks flying, football tucked under his arm, smile flashing as he speeds past the slogan--"Ready to Run.”
The Heisman Trophy winner hit town promising big games, big yards, big wins and the playoffs for the Saints. But six weeks into the season Williams has just one 100-yard game and New Orleans has only one victory.
That’s a meager return for an investment of eight draft picks, including a No. 1 and No. 3 next season that are becoming more valuable with every Saints loss.
“Well, it’s too late now,” Williams said when asked how he’d respond to someone who said the team didn’t get the player they thought they were getting. “They made a mistake, if that’s the case, and they have to live with it.”
When Mike Ditka made Williams the Saints’ only draft pick he dubbed him the “final piece of the puzzle” and said the rookie out of Texas would take the Saints to the Super Bowl.
“I’m going to say it, so listen, because I’m going to say it loud,” Ditka told fans. “We’re going to win the Super Bowl, and I’m not talking 10 years from now, either, gang.”
That brag sounded hollow soon after the season started. In the first five games, the Saints averaged fewer yards per carry than last season, when they were dead last in the NFL. Through six games they averaged 85 yards, compared with 77 last season. But last year New Orleans was 3-3. Now they’re 1-5.
While the Saints struggle, so does Williams, and it could hurt him financially, too.
His contract is laden with incentives, the biggest of which kick in if he gains 1,600 yards and scores 12 touchdowns. With 10 games to go, he’s 1,197 yards short, meaning he must average 120 yards a game and start finding the end zone.
“I have four years to average 1,600 yards actually,” Williams said. “That’s the contract. If I have a bad year, I still have three years left to have a couple of good years, if this year turns out to be not the way I planned.”
So far, it’s certainly not the way he or the Saints planned anything. The team’s only rushing touchdown has been scored by quarterback Billy Joe Hobert.
In the preseason, Williams had just nine carries before a sprained left ankle sidelined him. He’s started every regular-season game, but he sprained his ankle again in the first game and hyperextended his right elbow in the second game. He wore an elbow brace until last week.
In regular-season games Williams carried for 40, 80, 84, 53 and 35 yards before gaining 111 yards against the Giants, 80 of which came in the second half of New York’s 31-3 victory.
In that same game, what would have been Williams’ only NFL touchdown was nullified by a holding call.
“What’s 100 yards? Last week was my first NFL game with 35 yards, so it doesn’t mean anything,” Williams said. “They’re just numbers, that’s all.”
Williams’ longest run so far is 25 yards, also against the Giants. His 403 yards came on 113 carries, an average of 3.6 yards a carry -- far below his glory days at Texas when he became college football’s most prolific runner.
Finding a hole has been a problem for Williams, even though the Saints have five-time Pro Bowl starter William Roaf and two other No. 1 picks on the offensive line. They also signed free agent Wally Williams.
“You play the game, you really don’t know if you did anything right or wrong, you just knew there wasn’t anywhere to run,” Ricky Williams said. “You watch the film. There haven’t been too many holes that I really missed this year. There’s been a couple, but I’m not not doing it because I’m not reading my holes.”
Even playing hurt, center Jerry Fontenot said, Williams plays tough.
“The kid makes people pay whenever he runs the ball,” Fontenot said. “He’s not afraid to take on anybody. And when he’s running down the sideline, he doesn’t look for a place to run out of bounds. He’s looking to run over somebody.”
Ditka has fumed over not getting the ball to Williams enough, even though he’s calling many of the plays. The Saints have rushed the ball only 178 times, they’ve passed it 207 times.
Before getting 24 carries against the Giants, Williams averaged just over 17 a game, far below what Ditka envisioned when he drafted him. It’s also far fewer carries than he needs to give New Orleans a substantial threat, offensive lineman Wally Williams said.
“I don’t think that’s enough for a guy like Ricky to even get going,” he said. “When you want to be a running team, guys are going to stuff you. You’re going to lose 2 or 3 yards here, 5 yards there. But that shouldn’t take you out of your plan.”
Yet it has. If Williams and the Saints want to turn around their season, they must come up with a new plan--and quickly.