Return of running back combo gives Dolphins hope

DAVIE, Fla. -- If the Miami Dolphins have a prayer of improving one of the NFL's worst offenses -- not to mention the team with its worst record last season -- they need their running game to at least resemble what it was in 2005.

That was the year Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined for 1,650 yards, with each averaging 4.4 yards per carry.

Since then, there have been plenty of developments to make the '05 seem like a distant memory. Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2007, and is still working his way back from reconstructive surgery. Williams served a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, spent a season in the Canadian Football League, and returned to the Dolphins for one game last year -- just long enough to suffer a torn chest muscle that also ended his season.

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For now, the Miami Dolphins have two quarterbacks who could be regarded as their starter, which is another way of saying that they don't even have one.

As has been the case throughout offseason workouts, John Beck and Josh McCown are evenly splitting first-team snaps at the Dolphins' mandatory minicamp. Rookie Chad Henne, the team's second-round draft pick, gets fewer repetitions as the lone backup. More ...

Two head coaches have come and gone, along with different offensive schemes.

But the Brown-Williams combination is back.

It is better than ever? That might be a stretch. Is it as good as it was in 2005? Tough to say, although there were some encouraging signs that could be the case during the Dolphins' recent three-day mandatory minicamp.

Brown seems to be making strong progress in his recovery, which by all indications is ahead of schedule. At 31, Williams, who has long recovered from his injury, appears to be in top physical condition. He shows tremendous explosiveness and impressive speed.

Asked if he thought it was realistic for the duo to recapture the effective one-two punch they had in 2005, Williams said, "I don't see why not. (Brown's) got a couple of more years under his belt and more experience, and I'm pretty fresh right now. So I think we have a good shot to do that."

Answering the same question, first-year Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said, "We hope so, we really do. We see a Ricky Williams that has finally had an offseason and a Ronnie Brown who has taken full advantage of an outstanding offseason as he's recovering. We're excited to have both of them in the backfield and we think that's going to be a plus for our team."

The key to whether that is, in fact, the case is Brown's health. He has participated in a good deal of non-contact drills during the offseason. Although the team's medical staff has put limits on his activity, he has been able to do some cutting while running and has run pass routes along with taking handoffs.

Brown expects to be cleared for full participation when training camp begins in July. He doesn't anticipate having any problems trusting his knee once he is exposed to contact.

"But at the same time, I've never had an injury like this," he said. "A lot of guys (who have had major knee injuries) say … once the season gets started and they kind of get back into things, the main thing is to kind of get that confidence back. I think, by the time we go through a little training camp and have a little contact, I think by the time the season comes, everything will be pretty good."

"We think he's progressing really well," Sparano said of Brown. "We're being really slow and really cautious with Ronnie as we go into this thing and we're really hopeful for when we get down the road."

Williams had serious doubts that the new Dolphins' regime, led by executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells, would give him the chance to return to the team. But Williams benefited from the fact that many of Miami's new coaches have close ties with his former coach at the University of Texas, Mack Brown. Brown told them that Williams was a good person, despite what his checkered past might indicate, and would be worth the gamble.

Having surpassed his 30th birthday, the point when NFL running backs historically see a significant physical decline, Williams has changed his conditioning routine. But it isn't a case of merely working harder.

"I think you have to work smarter," he said. "One thing is your metabolism slows down and you have to be careful of what you eat and you don't heal as fast, so you have to do a really good job of getting in the ice tub, eating better, and taking care of yourself. I hold myself to a very high standard and so does this coaching staff. So every day I came out here, unfortunately and fortunately, I find a lot of little things that I can do better. It's good to get out here, especially this time of year, and get the work in."

"I see a guy that's worked his tail off in the offseason," Sparano said of Williams. "He's got 11 solid weeks underneath him. He shows some explosive run ability. He really shows an outstanding work ethic and wants to be better at what he does."

The Dolphins' quarterback situation is as uncertain as any in the league. The leading candidates to start, seventh-year veteran Josh McCown and second-year pro John Beck, have a great deal to prove. Rookie Chad Henne has a great deal to learn.

The offensive line is being rebuilt, with Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick of the draft, filling the cornerstone spot at left tackle.

As the Dolphins look for ways to climb out of the abyss that was last year's 1-15 record, the prospect of Brown and Williams successfully carrying the offensive load is as reasonable a place to start as any.

"I think in this league, if you want to win, you have to have balance," Williams said. "Whether we had Dan Marino back there or whoever, I think as a running back group we want to do what we can to help us win."

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