Long ago, the National Football League had transformed into the end of the line for coaching control, the last stop in pro sports where the guy with a gut rolling down out of his golf shirt could inspire fear and loathing in the lives of three hundred pound men.
Wannstedt couldn't control him.
Coaches can live with the loss of a superstar to a blown-out knee, but losing his Pro Bowl running back to a summer tour of the Pacific Rim, to a longing to share in the serenity of those destitute, shanty-living Jamaicans that so moved Williams? Losing him to that?
Losing him to the freedom to get stoned without drinking that nasty masking agent prior to taking the league's drug tests?
To lose his season, his team, and ultimately his job, to that?
Sad day for the Dolphins, but sadder for the cult of coaching control in the NFL.
Williams just doomed the Dolphins to a 4-12 season, and ultimately, Wannstedt to the unemployment line. Coaches believe they can control everything, if they just plan it all out. They script everything in the off-season, the preseason and once the games themselves start, when it is supposed to be the athletes taking over, they script out the plays to run in the game. They hold hours of endless meetings, and film sessions and send players home with playbooks so thick they need wheelbarrows to carry them out of the team complex.
And now, Ricky Williams just blew all that up for Wannstedt. He can take his training-camp speech selling the promise of a Super Bowl season to his players, tear it up and toss it in the trash.
There are few guaranteed contracts in the NFL, and even fewer singular athletes able to decide the fate of the franchise. In most instances, one player doesn't make or break a football team. The parts are largely interchangeable. And running backs are especially replaceable. Scouts can always get someone to run the ball. Williams was different. He could carry the ball forty times a game, if they needed him.
Everything the Dolphins designed on offense had been constructed around Williams. Perhaps, there wasn't a non-quarterback in the AFC more important to his team than Williams to the Dolphins.
This is the sum of all fears for the football coach. They hate to be indebted to a player this way. They hate to believe one man can so completely control a destiny. Wannstedt tried desperately to talk Williams out of his retirement, reports say, but apparently Williams had made up his mind. He decided to take the control out of his coach's hands, climb on a plane, and disappear.
Around the NFL, the league's coaching will dig in this summer. Tom Coughlin is threatening to move the New York Giants' training camp to Junction, Texas. Mild-mannered Herm Edwards has promised his nice guy routine is over with the Jets. Everywhere in the sport, coaches are struggling for control. Around the league, there are coaches promising to make life tougher, nastier, meaner on players.
Ricky Williams could still come back. This isn't Jim Brown and Barry Sanders leaving the sport as Hall of Fame runners, thirtysomethings who just had enough of the grind. Williams is just 27. This isn't even Robert Smith of the Vikings, who left for something specific: medical school.
What did Ricky Williams leave to do?
He can't be so shallow that he just left to hang out under tropical waterfalls and smoke blunts the lengths of goal posts ... could he?
Maybe the greatest motivation of all -- the fact that there is nowhere else in the world where Williams can make so much money -- will bring him back to the Dolphins. He is holding his coach's fate in his hands, and that's something extraordinary in this sport.
Dave Wannstedt is done because Ricky Williams said so.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist with The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com