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|AP Photo/David Duprey|
|When all the Bills' running backs are active, free-agent signee Dominic Rhodes is probably No. 3 on the depth chart.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Dominic Rhodes was at the most exhilarating juncture of his career.
He was reveling in the glory as a Super Bowl champion, and he was more than a bit player for the Indianapolis Colts. He could have been the game's MVP.
Furthermore, Rhodes was headed to free agency. Convinced he deserved to be a starting back after years of mopping up for Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai, the big break was within sight.
Rhodes blew it.
He blew a .09, and he blew his best opportunity to show he could be somebody's leading man in 2007.
"That year, me and Travis Henry were the top backs in the free-agent market," Rhodes said last week after a Buffalo Bills minicamp practice. "I had high hopes for myself. I don't know, man."
Rhodes is certain his past transgressions still follow him. He has been arrested for DUI and domestic abuse. Two years ago, he was suspended as a repeat offender under the NFL's substance abuse policy.
As a free agent again this year, he wasn't pursued nearly as much as he figured. He did turn 30 in January. Signing a running back at that age is tantamount to buying a gallon of milk a day before the expiration date.
|Stan Liu/US Presswire|
|After being cut by the Raiders, Rhodes returned to Indianapolis last season and ran for 538 yards and six touchdowns.|
But Rhodes was coming off a productive season with the Colts. He gained 840 total yards as Addai's backup. He said he's happy to be with the Bills, but he thought he would've had more options.
"I was upset with how it went," Rhodes said. "I really figured I would get more interest and more teams would be coming to get me.
"But I sat back and realized some of the mistakes I made. I messed up."
Two weeks after running for a game-high 113 yards and a touchdown to help the Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Rhodes was failing field-sobriety tests at 3 a.m. on the Interstate-65 shoulder in Indianapolis.
Police arrested Rhodes for DUI, but the blunder didn't cost him right away. Three weeks later, the Oakland Raiders signed him to a two-year contract worth $7.5 million. And his legal problems improved. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and had the DUI charges dropped.
Rhodes was in the clear. Or so he thought.
The NFL suspended him the first four games of 2007 as a repeat offender under its substance abuse policy. Rhodes forfeited almost $353,000 in game checks and fell out of favor with the Raiders' front office. They cut him after the season.
The undrafted overachiever from tiny Midwestern State had done so much to make it in NFL, but he prevented himself from experiencing all that was possible.
"More than the money, when you're 75 or 80 years old, you're going to look back on the opportunities missed," said Carolina Panthers quarterback Josh McCown, who was Rhodes' training camp roommate with the Raiders. "Those are going to be your regrets, regardless if there's a dollar sign attached or not. He realizes that was a missed opportunity. As a competitor in this business, you hate to miss any opportunity."
In 2002, Rhodes was arrested for domestic battery. Rhodes avoided a conviction. The judge placed him in a diversion program and mandated counseling.
"I'm not shying away from the fact I got in trouble," Rhodes said. "It's out there. People know. I'm ready to talk about it and make amends for it and help anyone else who needs help with it."
The timing of his DUI and the four-game suspension torpedoed his chance to become a feature back.
When he joined the Raiders, he fully expected to emerge as the starter. But in the first three games he was away from the team, LaMont Jordan rushed for 70, 159 and 121 yards. In Week 4, Jordan ran for 74 yards, while Justin Fargas ran for 179 yards.
"The four weeks off really hurt him in his heart because he missed being around us and playing the game," McCown said. "That's when it really set in what had happened.
"Even moving forward there was a thought process 'I'll sign with Oakland and win this appeal and go play and be opening day starter and parlay that into something bigger.' When the suspension came down, it was a blow to what he was hoping to get accomplished."
Rhodes played only six games for Oakland. He had only 24 yards through his first three appearances. He started the last two, rushing for more than 100 yards in each loss.
"I wished he would've gotten a chance to work in that offense the whole year," McCown said, "because I think he would have had a big year."
Rhodes returned to his comfort zone last season. Indianapolis was a security blanket.
Benevolent coach Tony Dungy welcomed him back. With such mainstays as Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday, the offense hadn't changed. After seeing the grass was browner elsewhere, Rhodes was more willing to accept his backup role to Addai.
"We're barely a year and a half removed from my DUI," Rhodes said. "Teams were kind of scared of that. Teams that don't know you are scared. The Colts know me. They know that I'm not a bad guy."
Rhodes, who started four games last season when Addai was hurt, ran for 538 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 45 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns. His nine combined scores matched the single-season career high he set as a rookie, when he filled in for James and rushed for 1,104 yards.
"One thing people forget is they think of him as a backup, but I think he's a little better football player than the perception," said former Colts coach Ted Marchibroda, who is a broadcast analyst for the team. "He did a great job filling in last year.
"I think he felt in his first stint with the Colts he should've been playing more, and he made it known. But not this time. He was real happy coming back with the Colts and did a good job."
But the offers didn't roll in. That was a nice development for the Bills, who failed to sign free agents Fred Taylor and Kevin Jones.
"I was excited to see him go back to Indy and hopefully rekindle what he had going there," McCown said. "When I saw he got to play in some games and was starting, I thought 'You know what? He's going to turn this into something good. It's going to work out for him.' I was surprised people didn't take more interest in him."
Rhodes signed a two-year contract that will pay him base salaries of $750,000 this year and $1.25 million next year. The deal included $450,000 in bonuses.
He's probably third on Buffalo's depth chart when everybody is active. Pro Bowl back Marshawn Lynch has been suspended for the first three games because of repeated malfeasance. Popular backup Fred Jackson should be the primary backup.
"The opportunity's there for me to get some touches," Rhodes said. "They wanted me the year I came into free agency after the Super Bowl, so I figured the second time is a charm.
"All I want to do is get out there and make some plays and just keep showing the league what I got and keep playing as long as I can."
Rhodes insists he's more mature than he used to be, that he has amended his lifestyle and learned from his mistakes.
Another misstep could lead to a season-long suspension.
"I have a chip on my shoulder," Rhodes said. "I came from a small school. I'm a smaller back. I run a lot different than most smaller backs. I'm a between-the-tackles guy and I'm always out there trying to prove a point and make sure people notice me when I'm on the field.
"That's just me. I'm always out to prove myself and give everything I got and make sure my teammates know I'm accountable."