Ideally, Ricky Williams said he won't start this weekend. Because in the Colts' ideal, running back Edgerrin James would be healthy and effective and at his best against AFC South rival Tennessee. The NFL is not always ideal.
James, the NFL's leading rusher in 1999 and 2000, and the Colts' leading rusher this season, is listed as doubtful on the injury report with a hamstring injury. That means the Colts are planning to play without James on Sunday. Enter Williams.
"I'm hoping the best for Edgerrin, but if need be, I'm looking forward to it, and I'll be prepared," Williams said as the AFC South leading Colts (4 - 3) prepared to play the Tennessee Titans (3 - 4) at the RCA Dome on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Such are the words of any NFL backup when a starter is injured, but Williams already has given indication that he may indeed be ready. Last week, in the Colts' Sunday night loss to the Washington Redskins, James, who rarely leaves a game unless he is injured, left during the fourth quarter after sustaining a grade two injury to his hamstring.
Williams, a rookie free agent from Texas Tech, who was acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Saints just before the start of the season, rushed three times in his absence for 21 yards. On 14 carries against the Saints, James rushed for 33 yards. Williams also caught a 20 yard touchdown from Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
"We're totally confident he can come in this week and make a big impact for us," Colts offensive tackle Tarik Glenn said. "He runs hard and hits the holes hard. He's a real aggressive back. He's small in size, but the way he runs, he has Jerome Bettis in him."
Williams, 5' 7", 195 pounds, rushed for 3,661 yards and 36 touchdowns as a four year letterman at Texas Tech, and Glenn said Colts players have known for several weeks Williams would be ready if needed.
"It's not like he's never played with us before," Glenn said. "In practice, he gets reps with the first group, so this is nothing foreign to us. The difference is he might have to play the whole game. The style of blocking doesn't change. He just comes in and does what he does and I think we can be successful at it."
Still, Manning and Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said there is benefit to Williams having played effectively last week. "I think it gave him a lot of confidence, which is the most important thing," Manning said. "Obviously, you want a guy back there who feels good about what he's doing running the ball. Obviously, the other aspect is pass protection. Usually, when you have a young back in there, defenses will try to give you different looks to try to test you out. He's done a good job of learning on the run."
The Colts last season benefited from an undrafted rookie free agent when James was injured. In 10 games starting, Dominic Rhodes rushed for 1,104 yards, the most ever by a rookie free agent. Williams isn't thinking Rhodes-type numbers, but he said he has confidence he can perform well if needed.
"That's the way I want to be looked at," Williams said. "I want the coaches to know they can depend on me, so they know that if Edge goes down, they have someone who can do the job. This is still Edgerrin James' offense -- his and Peyton's. If he gets healthy and well, they'll stick him back in."
But until James is healthy, Williams said he will prepare as if he is the starter. "That's the best way to do it -- prepare me for the game in case Edgerrin isn't ready to play," Williams said. "That way, I can contribute to the team. I would love to start. A rookie's dream is to start, and I think that would be my opportunity, if need be. My confidence always has been high. I knew I had ability, and playing behind Edgerrin, I get a chance to see a great back and see the things he does in this offense. I can relate to his style, and I kind of have my own style. I just want to use it and help the team out."