With Baltimore Ravens' running back Ricky Williams announcing his retirement from the NFL Tuesday, it's worth taking a look back at the time he spent in the CFL. The popular perception on both sides of the border is that Williams' 2006 campaign with the Toronto Argonauts was a failure both for him and the league, and it's easy to see where that comes from. Williams was hit hard by injuries that year and only finished with 526 rushing yards and 127 receiving yards, he didn't draw particularly massive crowds or take the team to the Grey Cup, and his signing drew criticism from many sides and even led to a new rule preventing CFL teams from signing players under NFL suspension. Still, there's a strong case to be made that Williams' time in Toronto was good for him, the Argonauts and the CFL.
First, there's Williams himself. Many see him as a screwup and a first-overall draft pick who underachieved, particularly considering how he reportedly failed three drug tests for marijuana, retired from football in 2004 at age 27, studied holistic medicine and yoga, came back, failed another test, was suspended and went off to Canada. The truth's a little more complicated than that, though, and nuanced examinations of the man (such as ESPN's excellent 30 For 30 film, Run Ricky Run have gone further into the layers of his personality, including how he's been diagnosed with clinical depression, social anxiety disorder, avoidance disorder, and borderline personality disorder.
Regardless of how much blame Williams deserves for his positive drug tests and time outside the NFL, though, it's worth pointing out that he's basically been a model citizen since returning to the league with the Dolphins and Ravens (and a highly-effective player). Williams may not have put up the highest stats in Canada, but key figures such as his coach, Pinball Clemons, and his quarterback, Damon Allen, certainly appeared to have an influence on him, and the CFL seemed to help him rediscover the fun in football. He told USA Today's Jon Saraceno in 2006 that he was loving life north of the border, and he was even considering staying for another year thanks to the flexibility allowed in the CFL game:
"If I came back here, you can put me anywhere. Up here, I can play offense, defense, special teams. I can do everything. I can block, play tight end, running back, receiver — even play the line. The NFL is so structured — 'You do this.' Here I can do so much."
Williams' stint in Canada was good for the Argonauts as well, though. Sure, he didn't achieve the production suggested by his contract (reportedly in the neighbourhood of $240,000 Canadian), but he was effective when called upon as a rusher, receiver and blocker. With John Avery, he gave the Argonauts the best one-two RB tandem in the league, and he overcame a broken arm bone and a gashed Achilles' tendon to help them to a 10-8 record that was tied with Montreal for the best in the East. Toronto lost first place on tiebreakers, but beat Winnipeg 31-27 in the East semifinals (with Williams picking up 40 rushing yards on just six carries) before losing 33-24 to Montreal in the division final (where Williams led all Toronto rushers with 57 yards and a touchdown on nine carries). Sure, Williams didn't singlehandedly carry the Argonauts to glory, and they came up short of their overall goal of repeating as Grey Cup champions, but they still had a strong season, and he was an important part of that.
Oddly enough, Williams' best impact on the CFL as a whole may have come from his lack of dominance. Remember, he entered the CFL as an NFL running back in his prime, and one who had run for a league-leading 1,853 yards and earned a first-team All-Pro nod in 2002. Many commentators south of the border expected Williams to walk all over the CFL. He did well, but he didn't dominate, and that helped improve the CFL's reputation in some U.S. circles. Moreover, the extra attention Williams' CFL stint brought (negative and positive) helped get the league on the U.S. radar to an extent, and it particularly increased awareness of the CFL as an option for American players.
Was Williams' north-of-the-border stint uniformly positive? It's tough to say that, as it could have gone better for him, for the Argonauts and for the league. Still, it carried positive elements for everyone involved, and on balance, it didn't work out all that badly. Some may remember Ricky Williams' CFL days as a punchline or an odd bit of trivia, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Williams will be mostly remembered for his stellar college seasons at Texas (where he won the Heisman Trophy following the 1998 campaign) and his incredible NFL career (where he had a whole draft and more traded for him in 1999, and where he collected 10,009 rushing yards and had five 1,000 yard seasons), but his CFL stint was more than just a joke, and there are plenty of good reasons for fans of both the CFL and NFL to look back on it fondly.