The Mario Williams Saga

Just over a year ago, the Bills gained national attention by signing arguably the top free agent of the 2012 class. Yes Peyton Manning was also a free agent that offseason (and probably the best free agent ever), but his situation was similar to a college recruit being able to pick which team he eventually decides to play for. Mario, on the other hand, was lured to Buffalo by the southern charm of former General Manager Buddy Nix, as well as the $100 million dollar contract he received. Though heralded by many as the greatest free agent signing in Buffalo history, as well as drawing comparisons to Reggie White signing in Green Bay; Williams failed to live up to the lofty expectations put on him by the desperate fans in the city of Buffalo in his first season as a Bill.

Background on Williams

Throughout his career, Williams always seemed to be under the radar. In his last year at NC State, the Wolfpack had a mediocre season with a record of 7-5. Williams drew the attention of many scouts by recording 15 sacks during his last season at NC State. At one point early in the draft process, draftnik’s actually believed that the other Wolfpack bookend, Manny Lawson, was a better prospect. However, Williams solidified his draft stock by measuring in at 6’7, 295 lbs. and recording a freakish 4.70 in the 40 yard dash, a 40.5” vertical jump, and bench pressing 35 reps of 225 lbs. These numbers would be good for a receiver, let alone a defensive end nearly 300-pounds. When the draft came around, everyone expecting Houston to select the Heisman winning Reggie Bush first overall. When Williams was selected, he was boo’d by fans at Radio City Music Hall, as well as criticized by Houston fans that were hoping for the highly coveted Reggie Bush. While Bush displayed flashes of brilliance during his tenure with the Saints, he was never the franchise changing back fans expected him to be. Williams, on the other hand, became a two time all-pro defensive end in Houston; totaling 53 sacks in his six seasons, and a franchise player that helped changed the face of the Houston Texans.

However, the last few years in Houston were riddled by injuries for Mario Williams. Williams missed the last four games in 2010 due to an inflamed hernia, as well as only playing five games in 2011 before tearing his pectoral against Oakland. In 2011 Williams was moved to a 3-4 outside linebacker, and had a sack in each of his first five games. This was arguably his best start to a season in his career; however, the Texans didn’t feel a drastic decline in their defensive production and decided to give Williams a one-way ticket out the door. Houston believed that Williams wasn’t a great fit for their new 3-4 defense and they wouldn’t be able to afford his astronomical price tag. Generally premier pass rushers of Williams’ caliber do not hit the free agent market. Due to the importance of the pass rusher position in today’s NFL; outside of a few cases, such as Julius Peppers leaving Carolina for Chicago, the defensive end free agent market is generally filled with one year wonders, old aging veterans, or players with upside that teams believe are a “diamond in the rough”, not all-pro talent in the prime of their career.

Williams signed with the Bills in the 2012 offseason, and started the 2012 campaign with little to no impact in the teams first few games. Many Bills fans began to panic; constantly calling into WGR 550, or venting on various message boards to debate whether or not they could get out of Mario’s contract at the end of the season. Most pointed to Buddy Nix for irrationally spending on Williams, giving him a six-year contract with $50 million guaranteed. This pressure was noted by Williams, as he constantly was forced to address the media regarding the expectations due to his record contract. While the second half of his season in Buffalo was a drastic improvement, most Bills fans felt very underwhelmed by his first season in Buffalo.

The Chaotic Year

While recovering from a torn pectoral for a defensive end is bad enough, Williams went through even more madness the following off-season. Williams made it very clear to the media that he did not want to leave Houston, and once he found out he would not be franchised, he was forced to move on to the next team that coveted his pass rushing abilities. When free agency opened on March 23rd, Williams was picked up by Buddy Nix in a private jet en route to Buffalo. What was different from this free agent visit, however, was that Williams was very uncertain if he wanted to take the biggest contract offer possible, or take less money on a team that could potentially win a Super Bowl. Generally first day free agent visits usually end up with the free agent signing the same day with the team who probably negotiated his contract well in advanced. However, in this case Williams was reluctant to sign on impulse, and after many false media assumptions about him leaving Buffalo, Williams finally signed on his third day in Buffalo after flying in his fiancée. However, Mario’s chaotic year only began there.

Williams began the season with a very poor performance against the Jets, and drew criticism from fans when he blamed poor officiating and an injured wrist for his poor play. To casual fans, the wrist injury seemed like a pretty far stretch considering it isn’t uncommon to see defensive players continue to play with broken arms. While these players have no problem playing with giant boxing glove style casts on their arms, Williams was nursing a hand that wasn’t even wrapped or taped. Williams decided to undergo surgery on his injured wrist during the team’s bye week, and responded with seven sacks in the following six games. This was a great response to the fans that were calling for his release after just a few poor games, however, it did not satisfy the critics who were expecting sack records.

Following the conclusion of his first year in Buffalo, Williams was once again in the media with an ugly break up with his fiancée (yes, the one he had to convince to move to Buffalo), who refused to return the $785,000 engagement ring Williams had given to her. This speculation was already quite a story, however, a few days later Mario’s ex-fiancée decided to release text messages from Williams displaying his unsupervised consumption of hydrocodones (a synthetic depressant from the opioid family) prior to a game, as well as his alleged contemplation of suicide. This news was released following the season, but any fan could understand how this may have affected his play. Finally, during OTA’s this spring, Williams was under scrutiny once again for relaying the credo that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was instilling into the defense, “Kill ‘em, or hurt ‘em”, which is a very sensitive topic in the NFL, being only a year removed from the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.

While luckily there was no league investigation from the “kill ‘em” statement (both cited it as a misunderstanding); Mario Williams has had a chaotic start to his tenure in Buffalo, which hopefully the 2013 season can change. Many fans fail to realize that double digit sacks in a season is never poor, however, it must be considered that most fans had an unrealistic “20+” sack season in mind for the 2012 season. Considering the circumstances, Williams’ season could have been much worse. Having his offseason preparation derailed due to a move to Buffalo, dealing with a wrist injury requiring surgery, going through a break up with your fiancée, as well as a legal battle over a ring following the release of embarrassing text messages would affect any player’s focus during the season, not to mention the immense pressure he was playing under by fans. With all this in mind, it is a safe bet that Mario’s 2013 season will be much improved from his 2012 campaign.

What can we expect in 2013?

Assuming Mario enters the season healthy, I am expecting him to be even better than he was in the late parts of last season. The most obvious reason for an improvement could be simply that Manny Lawson could provide pressure opposite Williams, something the defense did not provide him with in 2012. Further, what he hasn’t quite realized yet is that he is even more effective at outside linebacker in a 3-4 than he is at defensive end in a 4-3. Take his last year in Houston for proof. He lasted only five games before finishing the year on the injury reserve with a torn pectoral, however in those five games under Wade Phillips’ new 3-4 alignment he had 5 sacks. No one really knows what to expect in Mike Pettine’s new defense, but if Pettine is creative enough to allow Williams to match up one-on-one against tackles or tight ends, it is a pretty safe bet he will rack up sack numbers. Unlike Dave Wannstedt in 2012; Mike Pettine is expected to dial up exotic blitzes similar to what he used with the Jets in years past. This style of defense will allow Williams to move all over and keep the offense guessing, rather than strictly approaching every snap the same way in the vanilla 4-3 Wannstedt ran. Williams is much too great of a physical talent to be wasted in a very basic defensive scheme that relies on consistency and discipline, rather than pinning his ears back and abusing offensive tackles to get to their quarterback. Considering he will be approaching this season with a full year in Buffalo, without any distraction this season, Williams could be primed for a career year. Buffalo is rebuilding this season, and with that in mind the expectations from this team are extraordinarily low. It is no secret that the pressure put on him to single handedly turn around a franchise, as well as the media criticizing his every move distracted Mario Williams, which could lead him to playing with a serious chip on his shoulder in 2013. With all these factors in mind, I am predicting Williams to quietly be among the top five in sacks this season, while being a focal point of Mike Pettine’s defense. If Williams can stay healthy, focused, and motivated this season, the sky is the limit.

Comments

  1. Great synopsis of his highly publicized career… It sure is the most blitz happy and creative defence has has been apart of but is he physically capable of competing is the largest question facing him at this point in his football journey??