The smoke has cleared

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

If Ricky Williams would have wandered into the Miami Dolphins dressing room a year ago, Zach Thomas might have broken some bones.

And he wouldn't have been the only one.

But 14 months, not to mention a 4-12 season, has gone by and the smoke has cleared, literally and figuratively.

After taking a season off to a) wander the world, b) smoke dope and c) leave his teammates in the lurch, the superstar running back returns to real game action tomorrow.

Thomas, one of the hardest hitters in the league, says it has taken much of that time to forgive and forget. But the veteran linebacker says that through hard work, Williams has shown his teammates he is determined to re-establish himself as one of the elite backs in the NFL.

"It was a week before our season started," Thomas said of the anger he felt when slick Rick pulled his trick. "Our MVP left the team. I was upset. I'm selfish. I want us to have the best opportunity to win.

"That was last year. If you look at our team, everything is different from coaches to players to schemes. When he came back in, we really didn't need an apology. I just wanted to know if he was committed. That was the big question."

By most accounts, he is. Williams, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of the past three seasons he played, has quietly worked out on his own while sitting out a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

He has turned down all interview requests this week to keep the focus on his teammates.

The biggest question from a football standpoint is how much time Williams will get, given the solid performance of rookie Ronnie Brown, who was drafted as his replacement.

Coach Nick Saban has vowed that both players will "start," suggesting that they will split the load. The Dolphins have worked on a spread formation in practice which has featured both backs as a slot receiver at different times.

Sharing the backfield is nothing new for Brown, a first-round pick of the Dolphins who has lugged the ball for 229 yards in his past two games. In college, he split the backfield duties with Carnell (Cadillac) Williams, who is listed as questionable for the Bucs this weekend.

As for Williams, he was never the most popular player in the Dolphins' locker room anyway. If he keeps quiet and produces, it will be business as usual within weeks.

"You can't hold a grudge forever," defensive end Jason Taylor said. "We've all made mistakes in life and have done things we regret. If anybody sat here and said they didn't then they are lying."

RAVEN MAD?

Think Cleveland quarterback Trent Dilfer will have a added incentive when he returns to Baltimore to face the Ravens this weekend?

All Dilfer did was lead the Ravens to a win in the 2000 Super Bowl (okay, he didn't exactly lead them but he didn't screw up, either) and was rewarded by not being re-signed. Instead, the Ravens went for the bust of Elvis Grbac who was out of the league within two years.

"This one's obviously got a little something extra for me," Dilfer said. "I never thought they wouldn't bring me back. It was a shocker."

SICK FEELING

The New England Patriots may be hurting, but as long as they have Tom Brady, there won't be a defensive coordinator in the league who will breathe easily.

"All you've got to do is watch him throw outs and deep balls, and it makes you puke," Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said. "Their quarterback is right at the top. If there's somebody better than (Indy quarterback Peyton) Manning and him, it's going to be hard to prove to me."


Photos