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James and Williams remain linked in many ways

9/3/2001

The epitome of the journeyman quarterback, a vagabond passer who has spent
time with four different franchises during eight NFL seasons, Indianapolis
Colts backup Billy Joe Hobert can share his impressions of the league in
general and of specific personnel from a wide-ranging and varied
perspective.

As a guy who has shared a backfield but not a beer with both Edgerrin James
and Ricky Williams, however, the colorful Hobert is rendered near-speechless
when asked to dissect the pair of third-year veteran tailbacks. Even from an
up-close and personal viewpoint, it seems, the running stars of the
Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints, respectively, are still a couple
of mystery men.

At least, relatively unspeaking, compared to most backs of their skill
level.

"Both great players who are only going to get better," apprised Hobert of
the 1999 first-round draft choices. "Other than that, I mean, what can you
say?"

What to say, indeed, about two franchise-caliber backs who tend to speak
volumes with their legs instead of their lips. And who, because of their
suddenly juxtaposed positions in the '99 draft and disparate fortunes ever
since, figure to be forever joined at the hip-pads by the legion of pundits
who closely monitor their careers.

It is the destiny of the two players to be primarily viewed in tandem, their
DNA eternally commingled on the same laboratory slide, and it began even
months before the '99 draft. Standing in a corridor of the hotel where
prospects bivouac for the NFL's draft combine sessions, two months before
the lottery, James leaned against the wall and politely fielded questions
about his professional aspirations.

And then an unsuspecting reporter wandered up in mid-interview, noticed the
trademark dreadlocks dangling to near-shoulder length, and began what he
thought was an innocent query with, "Uh, so Ricky ..."

... and, not surprisingly, the interview came to an abrupt conclusion.

His brow furrowed, his temperament explicably altered by the unwitting
identity crisis, James hustled back to his hotel room, pausing only briefly
to note, over his shoulder, "I am not Ricky, alright?"

OK, so the mistake, to most people, might be excusable. These two tailbacks,
after all, are not exactly Penn and Teller. One isn't tall, the other short.
One doesn't do all of the talking while the partner remains mute. They can
both get invisible on occasion, instead of making other things disappear.

But to James, that predraft slight in '99 offered a graphic portrayal of how
his celebrity existed largely within the shadow of Williams' persona, and he
has spent the time since then attempting to outrun the eclipse and
succeeded in record form.

From a physical standpoint, James and Williams actually aren't that
difficult to parse. The former flashes a smile filled with more gold than
they store in Fort Knox these days. The latter features more body piercings
than one of those pink-haired, punk-honed Goth wannabes that attend the
local high school with your kid. Peruse the numbers that each has posted in
his first two NFL seasons, though, and that's where the biggest disparity
lies, with James far outdistancing Williams' numbers.

In part because of injuries, including a broken leg that stymied him during
what looked to be a breakout 2000 campaign, Williams has rushed for just
1,884 yards in two years. For most players, that might be an estimable
amount. For the former Heisman Trophy winner, and a guy who completed his
college career as the owner of 20 NCAA records and the all-time rusher in
Division I-A annals, it seems a fairly pedestrian total.

Exacerbating the pressure on Williams, of course, is the king's ransom the
Saints paid to acquire his draft rights. The former regime of coach Mike
Ditka and general manager Bill Kuharich dispatched all of its '99 draft
choices and three more selections in 2000 to the Washington Redskins to
secure the back they regarded as the essential piece to a playoff puzzle,
and the bar was immediately raised.

When the former University of Texas star faltered on the field, and then
manifested a persona off it that could only be described as weird, the
long-suffering fans of The Big Uneasy grew increasingly wary of Williams as a
player and a person. It didn't help that Williams conducted most of his
interviews, even one-on-one sessions with the national writers who trecked to
New Orleans to see him, from behind the sanctuary of his facemask.

The helmet, and seemingly the cocoon from which he operated, seem to be
passé now when it comes to reaching out to the public. With the Saints
suddenly an emerging power in the league, Williams seems to comprehend now
that the accompanying celebrity also carries a price tag that outweighs his
reluctance for publicity.

"As long as people don't want to dig too deep, I don't mind (the
publicity)," Williams said. "There are some things that should remain
private, and some questions I will still choose not to get into, but I don't
mind talking about football and this team. I think it can be a pretty
special season (for both of us), and I'm looking forward to it."

While some eyebrows were raised when the Saints invested their first-round
choice this April in former Mississippi standout tailback Deuce McAllister,
and there were rumors New Orleans officials were dangling Williams in trade
talks, this figures to be a season in which he becomes the team's offensive
centerpiece. Had he not suffered the broken leg last year, Williams almost
certainly would have posted a 1,300-yard season.

Playing behind one of the NFL's premier run-blocking offensive lines, a
quintet of real roadgraders, Williams could put up huge numbers. Said
offensive guard Wally Williams: "No way he won't get 1,500 yards at least."

If he does, that will finally move him into the select company James already
enjoys. The only player in NFL history to have successive seasons of 1,500
rushing yards and also 500 receiving yards, James reached 2,500 rushing
yards faster than all but one runner in NFL annals. He can become the first
player to go over 1,400 rushing yards in each of his first three seasons,
and has averaged 144 total yards from scrimmage per game.

Colts general manager Bill Polian stunned many when he opted for James over
Williams with the fourth overall choice in the '99 draft, but he knew
exactly what he was doing. A workhorse in the running game, James is also a
better receiver than most scouts realized and is a key in the Indianapolis
passing attack.

In two seasons, he has logged all but 19 of the 775 carries by Indianapolis
running backs. There is virtually no depth behind him, so James is typically
forced to remain in a game even after the Colts have constructed
insurmountable leads, which is fine with him.

"Every great back wants the ball," he said, "and I'm no different."

Unlike the reticent Williams, he is readily agreeable to interviews,
although his replies tend to be stock. And he floated above the kind of
wave-making for which Williams has been noted until this spring, when he
skipped the Colts' so-called "voluntary" workouts and appeared on ESPN's
"The Life" during one of those weekend sessions.

No one ever questioned James' work ethic or dedication to the game, but the
television appearance and a magazine article published the same week, were
ill-timed to say the least. In his appearance on "The Life," he spoke openly
about staying up all night, doing weightlifting sessions at 3 a.m., and
cautioned the cameraman he would need more tape. In the magazine feature,
James hinted he might retire, or at least take a one-season hiatus, even
before his current contract expires.

"I play hard and I need that time away from the game," James said.

It is a sentiment voiced in the past at times by Williams, who has flirted
with a career in baseball, and seen his own dedication called into question.
One thing that is certain is that nothing seems certain with the two backs.
Both are poised, it seems, for big seasons in 2001, but neither will look
too far beyond that.

"Let's face it," Williams said, "no one can predict the future."

Especially for these two mystery men.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.