He came. He saw. He signed...eventually.
No joke. No punchline. I swear. Mario Williams is now officially a member of the Buffalo Bills, getting himself one of the biggest paychecks in NFL history at six years worth about $100 million, with $50 million guaranteed. For really real. He'll be joining rookie sensation Marcell Dareus, the newly-healed Kyle Williams, and... well, a player to be named later (Kelsay? Edwards? A superstar first-round pick?) on the new and improved Buffalo front four. Dave Wannstedt's promotion to new defensive coordinator last winter, coupled with the return of the 4-3 to the Buffalo playbook, had created what seemed to be the perfect, logical fit for free agent Mario Williams, but you now how it is in Western New York. Yeah, it may have "sounded" perfect, but it's Buffalo, so they wouldn't actually pursue the number one defensive free agent, right? And even when they did, you thought that there's no chance they'd do what it takes to land him, you know? We are talking about the Buffalo Bills here.
Well, then GM Buddy Nix and Wannstedt flew a private jet down to North Carolina and just picked Williams up, bringing him back for a little wining and dining at the moment free agency began. I mean, they were all over this, wooing Williams the moment the whistle blew, virtually ensuring no other team could even get within shouting distance. Chicago, Jacksonville, even Seattle was projected to get visits from Williams, but they never even had a chance to state their case. Buffalo was Johnny-on-the-Spot with this one, circling the wagons around the 6'6", 283 lb superstar defensive end and showing an aggressive, single-minded, and, frankly, surprising dedication to bringing in the best player available for their most pressing need: pass rush. Bills CEO Russ Brand came out of the dinner Tuesday and, true to the Bills rule of not divulging details, announced to gathered fans that they had a "Very Good Night", adding to the mounting excitement by saying absolutely nothing at all, leading to a long night of conjectures and curious tweets.
Then, in the crazy light of the next morning (an unseasonably balmy 60+ degree day), Bills fans awoke with no answers and waning confidence, as Robert Meachem had snuck off to San Diego while Buffalo lay snuggled (unsleeping) in bed. It smacked of an all too familiar feeling, one Bills fans had experienced entirely too often in past years. When it came to free agency, players simply refused to go there, forever opting to go elsewhere. If Meachem said no, as was expected, why would the number one defensive free agent in the NFL come to a different conclusion? Of course, sports reporters made it worse, spending the day comparing the potential of this signing to Green Bay's coup landing Reggie White in 1993 while simultaneously breaking down Williams' every movement, and as fans began realizing exactly what getting Mario could mean, it just got more stressful, more anxious around the city.
It's not overstating things by saying that Williams is a "franchise-changing player", one who could redirect the entire course of the Buffalo Bills from here on out. He is a Bruce Smith-level talent (and I would never use that comparison vicariously) and Buffalo became a town obsessed on Wednesday, Twitter stalking Buffalo players and reporters for any news. You'd hear news that he was still in the city, that he had just been spotted at Buffalo Medical Group, that there were confirmed sightings of him touring 1 Bills Drive (numerous times), sitting in Nix's office, picking up his fiance from the Buffalo Airport (all before noon), but there was still no announcement and the town sat frozen on what was actually a nice, sunny day. ESPN taunted us with conflicting reports about Williams leaving, while local Buffalo outlets were simultaneously saying the deal was all but done. It was a maddening day, the kind that makes you relive every feeling you've ever had as a Bills fan and so it just seemed destined to end badly... as it always does in Buffalo. It got even worse when he decided to lay off any announcement until the next morning, spending yet another night in Buffalo to sleep on it (is it the longest free agent visit ever?), and even taking in a Sabres game (reportedly). A second restless night followed for Bills fans...
Finally, on a grey and raining Buffalo Thursday, amidst heavy claps of thunder (good thing I don't read into portentous signs) there were suddenly rumblings on WGR550 that the ink had been put to paper, that the long wait was over, and the season had begun anew. Like a steaming mug of cider on a snowy December night, it was revealed that the Bills had officially signed Mario Williams, and the city exhaled a glorious (and slightly shocked) "Wow" of both relief and ecstasy. After 3 days of agony, the city was suddenly able to relax, let their shoulders fall, and raise their hands in celebration. Man, I can tell you right now, nothing's going to get done in Buffalo today.
See, here's how big this really is. In 82 games over six seasons (5 1/3 honestly), Williams tore through opposing offensive lines to the tune of 241 tackles, 53 sacks, and 11 forced fumbles. To put that in perspective, the most veteran linebacker/defensive end on the Bills is Chris Kelsay, who has played four more seasons (138 games total) and still has 23 less sacks than Williams and 3 less forced fumbles. Sure, Kelsay's got more tackles, but he's also played in 56 more games (he was healthy for most of them, too) and tackles don't mean you're getting into the backfield. The Bills needed a greater presence in the pass rush, needed to get in the quarterback's face faster, and needed to contain opposing runners before they could gallop for 3-6 yards on every play. Enter Williams, who set the Houston team record with 14 sacks in 2007, as opposed to Buffalo, which had a grand total of 29 sacks in 2011 (just 19 if the Redskins hadn't sucked so very badly). Though some may question the huge paycheck coming to Williams, he truly is THAT top shelf, undeniably the elusive fix the Bills were hunting for all last year to staunch the defensive bleeding that truly killed them.
Sure, Chicago had dreams of pairing Mario with Julius Peppers in 2012, but wouldn't have had the room to match the $91.5 million they gave Peppers (or, to be real, beat it) in order to get the 27-year-old Williams on their team. Buffalo, on the other hand, did just that, seemingly just pulling out the checkbook and asking Mario to "pick a number". Surely, Nix must have whispered some devilish gold into Williams' ear, painting the promise of anchoring a dominating young front four, as well as be the apparent captain of a defense that struggled to find a leader last year (Kyle Williams went down before he could lead them anywhere). What made this negotiation different than others past, though, was that Buffalo was willing to match money with their mouths this time. They paid Mario the price necessary to make those promises attractive, shedding the cheap malaise of the past and finally doing what so many fans have been begging management for since the early 1990's (the last time they truly spent what was needed to improve the team).
Still not sold on the price paid for Williams? Okay listen, Mario has truly evolved to become the force many worried he wasn't when Houston took him first in the 2006 Draft; he's now a wrecking ball getting to the quarterback, with a clean, solid wallop of a finish that opponents rarely escape or forget (like getting tackled by a polite train). Though he showed some weakness as a 3-4 OLB when forced in to pass coverage, that won't be a problem in Buffalo's 4-3 this next season, where his elite skills at rushing the pass and reading the run will immediately raise the respectability of the lowly Bills' D. Teams will now have reason to fear Buffalo again, will have to gameplan ways to handle them, and that lowly sack number they put up in 2011 should skyrocket with two Williams, Dareus, and another young beast (still hoping for Upshaw) staring down the quarterback...tense with barely controlled violence... waiting for the snap to attack... to explode through whatever paltry offensive line tries to stop them, leaving nothing but flailing bodies on the ground about them.
For Buffalo, though, this offseason has been just so foreign, even to die hard fans. It has been about discarding that national perception of being a "Perennial Loser", of being one of the bottom feeders of the NFL, one of the punchlines. For a name like Mario Williams (and Meachem, as well) to even come to Buffalo on the first day of free agency shows how far the franchise has come in just the last two years, and seeing what they were willing to pay for Williams cements their dedication to continuing down that road. In 2010, Fitzpatrick came in for an injured Trent Edwards and had to fight to win their first game of the season... by Week 10. Now, less than two season later, the Bills are becoming one of the hot, young contenders in the NFL, looking more legitimate the more big names they draw.
Previous to Thursday, Buffalo's biggest free agent coups of the last two decades were a fading Drew Bledsoe and a shadow of Terrell Owens. Now, they've signed a top 5 defensive end still at the peak of his career. With the upcoming Draft and the available young talent at OLB/DE in the top 20 picks, taking one of these future stars (Upshaw? Ingram?) could now serve to shore up the Bills' front line for many, many years to come (as well as become a bi-annual terror for AFC East QBs Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez, and whoever Miami ends up throwing out there). Even with Kelsay at the other end, Buffalo has, by far, the best front four in the division, plus a buzz that is just intoxicating, and we all know how that can filter through to the rest of the team, making an already potent looking offense reach even higher (especially if they can find another receiver... Mario Manningham is still out there and you can never have enough Mario's on one team).
Though it seemed he took forever to decide, you've got to appreciate the serious thought Williams had to put into this decision. At 27, he and his fiance are likely readying to "settle down" at Mario's next stop, will likely marry and begin raising a family, so they had to be sure that Buffalo was the place they could see themselves in. Also, in terms of actual football, he's not getting any younger (especially for a defensive end in the NFL) and this may be the last big stop for him, the place where he'll attempt to cement what has started as a Hall of Fame career. A lot was riding on his decision to take the Buffalo offer, with the city and area itself seeming to figure just as much (if not more than) the money or whether or not he thought he could play for the Bills (which seemed the easy part of the process, probably decided the first night). Williams and his future wife had to be sure this was a place they could spend the next five, very important years of their life, that it was the place they could begin their life together and they took all the time needed to make that decision (even if it did seem an eternity to fans). You've got to respect that and the type of character it shows he has to take that time, but I'm still glad it's over and that Buffalo now has a recognized defensive force to lead their troops into the future.
It's true folks, things look to be changing for the Buffalo Bills. Dreams are starting to get all mixed up with reality, miserable certainties are becoming pleasant surprises, and there's even been some rumored talks of having to retire the annual "There's Always Next Year" slogan. Success, redemption, relevance, playoffs (PLAYOFFS?); all these words, once seemingly extinct within the city limits, now sound much less ridiculous when spoken of in the context of the Buffalo Bills, and fans are feeling the demon's of four Super Bowl losses start to slide off their backs, the hurt becoming a faded scar of memory, a half-remembered nightmare. Or... maybe we should just curb those expectations and wait to see what happens... Maybe not...
A warning, though, that it might be time to think about having to cheer an entire season, so start pacing yourself now Bills fans, you might need those voices more than you think. From the looks of it, this could be one hell of a long, exciting season(s)... It was already a very long few days.
Let's go Buffalo. Finally... Welcome back to the NFL discussion.