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Williams could benefit from time in CFL


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Smith, Williams could benefit from time in CFL

By Mike Wilkening (mwilkening@pfwmedia.com)

May 19, 2006

The prospect of Onterrio Smith and Ricky Williams playing in the Canadian Football League is enough to make NFL media members smile ear-to-ear.

The news cycle is shorter than ever, and the NFL fan’s appetite for information never more voracious.

The CFL season starts in early June, just as the NFL’s executives, coaches and players get in their final vacations before July training camps. Nothing to see there …

… But Smith will be plying his trade in Winnipeg, and Williams, with the Dolphins’ permission, will be the Toronto Argonauts’ featured back.

It could be a summer of reporters booking flights on Air Canada and hammering out feature stories on the “long road back” for these troubled runners, both of whom would love one more shot at an NFL payday.

Whether they will ever be effective NFL players again is another story altogether. If Williams is reinstated for the 2007 NFL season, he’ll be 30 years old. There may no longer be a place for him in Miami, especially if Ronnie Brown thrives as the full-time running back in the coming season.

That could leave Williams to shop his services to the league’s other 31 teams, who are well aware of how he has left the Dolphins in the lurch in two of the past three seasons. But he is talented, and as long as he can play like he did at the end of last season, someone will forgive him for his sins.

Smith is about three and a half years younger than Williams, but he’s less talented, which makes his violations of the substance-abuse policy harder for teams to overlook … which makes him less employable. Remember, Smith slid until the draft’s second day in 2003 because teams worried about his conduct in college, which reportedly included a failed drug test at Tennessee.

In short, Smith is easily replaceable — he made it this way — and no NFL roster spot will ever be guaranteed to him again.

So I would be skeptical of anyone who tells you a successful stint for Smith in the CFL will lead to another NFL job. In fact, I don’t even want to entertain that thought.

The better question is whether Smith will be able to succeed in the Canadian Football League.

Smith might not even end up being the best back on the Winnipeg roster. The Blue Bombers already have Charles Roberts, who led the CFL with 1,624 yards a season ago. The Bombers have indicated each back will complement the other. The 5-6, 171-pound Roberts is excellent in the open field, while Smith will revise the role of grinding, inside runner that he played in Minnesota.

Eric Tillman, a three-time CFL general manager who is now a league analyst for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Rogers Sportsnet, believes Smith will be successful in the CFL. While the league emphasizes the passing game — such is life when the offense only gets three downs to get a first down — the running game becomes important as the season enters the autumn months. And Smith’s a “big back in a short body,” as Tillman noted.

Smith doesn’t anticipate much of a transition to his new league.

“My skill is still there. It’s just a case of coming up there and learning the system,” he said, according to the team’s Web site. “I’ve already been checking through the rule book and getting a feel for the (CFL) game. It’s brand new to me. But it’s football, so I’ll be able to adjust on the run.”

He had better. The CFL field is longer and wider than the NFL’s, and there is less time between plays. The rosters are smaller. And the players are better than you think. Tillman says an ex-NFL player’s first CFL practice can be an eye-opener.

“They are stunned by the quality of the athlete here,” he said.

The paycheck will also take some getting used to. Smith will reportedly make about $65,000 Canadian, a fraction of the NFL minimum. (Williams would likely make more should he sign with Toronto.) Like the NFL, the CFL doesn’t guarantee player salaries.

So Winnipeg isn’t taking much of a risk. Nor is the CFL, says Tillman, by employing players who might have encountered trouble in the NFL.

Referring to the CFL experience, Tillman said, “If guys handle it well, and use it as a positive and go back (to the NFL), then it ends up being a win-win scenario.”

The best-case scenario for the CFL, of course, would be for Smith and Williams to thrive and stay. And that may not be far-fetched. All Smith has to do is fit in with the Blue Bombers, and he has the talent to do so.

There is no doubting Williams’ skill, and he could be a smash hit in Toronto, a diverse city Tillman believes would be ideal for the reclusive, complex running back.

Maybe he’ll get to Toronto and never want to leave. And maybe Smith will find Winnipeg to his liking.

It isn’t the way either player drew it up, but the CFL might be the best — and only — place to make a decent wage playing professional football. Not an NFL wage, mind you, but it beats working for a living.

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