NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- He hasn't missed a play, a practice, a meal or an autograph request. His coaches see no sign of moodiness, surliness or sullenness. His teammates say the strange loner of a year ago is gone.
New Orleans Saints running back Ricky Williams is still shy as a deer -- and as fleet as one -- but in his second year in the NFL everything else about him seems changed.
"He's a great guy, he's done everything we've asked him to do," said running backs coach Dave Atkins. "I'd heard stories about him being hard to work with, moody, but I haven't seen any sign of it. He's been great and he's going to be great on the field this year."
The 1998 Heisman Trophy winner hit the league as the first-ever one-person draft, hailed as the key to the Super Bowl for the Saints. He became better known for a picture of him in a wedding gown with coach Mike Ditka and for wearing his dark-visored helmet during interviews than for his on-field performance.
"I wasn't uncomfortable being in the NFL, just being a Saint," Williams said. "It's kind of difficult to be with a team that's expected not to do well. They called us the 'Aints.' Even other teams didn't respect us and it's tough playing when you don't have respect."
Williams said he didn't realize how little respect the Saints had around the league until he was part of the team and heard players from other teams talking about it.
"It makes you feel like you don't have a chance," Williams said. "Because everyone expects to beat you."
Injuries to his ankle, elbow and toe caused Williams to miss four games in 1999. Lingering injuries contributed to his disappointing statistics of 884 yards and two touchdowns -- a marked contrast for a back who was the NCAA's career rushing leader when he finished up at Texas.
Williams signed an eight-year, $68 million contract that rapper Master P's agency, No Limit Sports, negotiated. To make the bulk of the money, he needed to meet 26 incentives, including producing at least 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns per year while averaging 4.5 yards per carry over his first four seasons.
His injury-plagued rookie year has all but eliminated any chance of reaching those goals, so Williams will play for $275,000 -- the league minimum for second-year players -- this season.
"I still think I could have reached the goals if I hadn't been injured," Williams said.
The contract, the picture, the helmet during interviews were not the result of bad advice, Williams insists.
"I don't listen to advice. I can't tell you if it was good or it was bad, because I do what I want to do," Williams said. '
Despite saying he would not do things differently, when Williams saw a Sports Illustrated article in which he knocked his teammates, his new coach and New Orleans, he realized how immature he sounded. He quickly dropped Master P's agency for Leigh Steinberg, who represents many of the NFL's biggest stars. Since then, Williams has been revamping his image
This year Williams makes himself available to reporters and fans. He signs autographs readily, something he complained about last year. Williams reported to the dining hall regularly during training camp; last year he holed up in his room and had meals fetched by his roommate.
"He's great," said rookie running back Chad Morton. "He's friendly and he's a big help to me on the field."
The Saints have provided help for Williams too, drafting fullback Terrelle Smith to block for him, adding quarterback Jeff Blake and installing the West Coast offense to open up room for him.
This year Williams has been not just running the football, but catching it and blocking for others.
"Williams is a three-dimensional back," offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy said. "He can run the football, he's an excellent pass protector, and he's a good receiver."
The Saints offense, which for years has contributed to the lack of respect for the team, will still rise or fall this year on Williams' success or lack of it.
"He's the No. 1 playmaker, no doubt about it," McCarthy said. "The system is built around the quarterback, he's the guy that has the ball on every play. But Ricky is the guy you've got to determine to get the ball to. He's the guy the opposition is going to line up every week and say, 'We've got to take Ricky Williams away.'
"We've got to find a way to get him the ball."
The Saints plan to get the ball to Williams 20 to 25 times a game. What he does with it will go a long way toward determining the Saints' success. How much pressure does that put on the second-year player?
"It's just perception," Williams said. "If I perceive the pressure, it's going to be there. If I don't, then it's not going to be there. All I can do is play football. I'm really not worried about my contract or anything else. Everything will be worked out on the football field."
End Advance for Aug. 26-27
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