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Dolphins Find Running Mate

Pro football: With Williams reviving long-absent ground game, Miami finally beats Jets and is 3-0.

September 23, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The streak is dead, and Ricky Williams couldn't feel more alive.

Miami's reborn running back rushed for 151 yards Sunday--including a career-long 53-yard touchdown--leading the Dolphins to a 30-3 victory over the New York Jets and ending an eight-game losing streak to the men in green.

Williams, whose personal and professional life hit the skids in New Orleans, is now helping to usher in a new era in Dolphin football. This franchise, which is 3-0 for the first time in five seasons, finally has a ground game to match its traditionally strong passing attack and defense.

"He's the complete package--a combination of speed with size and strength," Jet safety John McGraw said. "That makes him very hard to tackle. He's a completely new running back from what I remember of him a few years ago."

Once among the league's most peculiar players--a guy who wouldn't remove his helmet for interviews--Williams is happier and far more confident in Miami. He was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder last season and now takes medication for that, something he says has improved his life immeasurably. It doesn't hurt, of course, that he's treated like royalty in Miami.

"In New Orleans they appreciate football, but I didn't get this kind of treatment," said Williams, the first player in Dolphin history to record three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. "Here, I'm treated like a superstar."

He gets the best tables in restaurants and almost never gets stuck with the tab. He gets the VIP treatment at South Beach nightclubs. And Sunday, with Jet players falling all around him, he helped himself to generous gulps of yardage. He's better known for his quickness and power than his speed, so when he burst up the middle on his long touchdown run and didn't get caught from behind, it was a sure sign the Jet defense was done.

Put simply by New York defensive tackle Jason Ferguson: "We were on the field too long."

Already, it has been an agonizingly long September for the Jets, who needed overtime to beat Buffalo in the opener, then collapsed in a 44-7 loss to New England at the Meadowlands. Coach Herman Edwards tore into his team with a 10-minute tirade Wednesday--using the word "embarrassed" no fewer than a dozen times--but it clearly didn't do the trick.

"We're probably a little shaky right now," said Edwards, straddling football's version of the San Andreas fault. "I told them after the game we have to hang together. All we have is us."

On this day, "us" was ugly. Vinny Testaverde threw for 125 yards with two interceptions and was sacked twice. Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin gained 43 yards in 16 carries, after coming into the game averaging 1.4 yards a carry.

"I wouldn't say this is the lowest point, but it's a very low point," said Martin, part of an offense that was outgained 394 yards to 189. "It's just a storm we have to weather right now.... I don't know what the problem is. I don't know why we aren't playing the way we should be playing."

The Jets, who had not lost to the Dolphins since 1997 and had scored no fewer than 20 points in every game against them since 1995, could muster only a field goal.

But, through three quarters, the outcome was in question. Olindo Mare kicked a field goal early in the fourth quarter to give Miami a 16-3 lead, and by that time the Jets were wilting in the sticky heat. On Miami's next possession, Williams pounded the defense with four consecutive carries, took a one-play break, then bolted up the middle for his 53-yard touchdown. His understudy, Travis Minor, finished the scoring with a five-yard touchdown run with two minutes left.

Jay Fiedler, who entered the game with a league-best 123.8 quarterback rating, completed 16 of 30 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.

Tight end Randy McMichael had five catches and wide receiver Chris Chambers had four. But the most spectacular catch of the day was made by Oronde Gadsden, the onetime arena league player, who made a leaping, one-handed grab over the middle for a 23-yard gain that brought the crowd of 73,426 to its feet.

"He's been doing that his whole career," Fiedler said. "You see that big mitt come out of the sky and just snag it down."

If only the Dolphins could so effortlessly snare the respect of the NFL world. For so long, their lack of a running game has made them a two-legged stool, a team that does reasonably well during the regular season and often makes the playoffs, but doesn't have enough firepower to compete with the league's best teams.

That's changing. The way Miami guard Jamie Nails sees it, his undefeated team is long overdue for some national respect.

Said Nails: "I was watching 'Inside the NFL' on HBO last night. We're 2-0, and they just barely talked about us. So obviously people haven't noticed yet that we have something special going on. But once they realize that, things will change."

Things already have changed for Williams. He pulled up at a stoplight recently, and a man selling flowers recognized him. The man politely tapped on the car window, Williams rolled it down and was handed a free flower, a simple gesture of thanks.

Today, a free flower in his hand. Tomorrow, rose petals at his feet.

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