Coming into Week 5 of the NFL, Bills fans have quite a few questions about their franchise, but there seems to be none more pressing than, "Where's Mario?".
Seen as a boon when he was signed to a $100 million contract in the offseason, Mario Williams has yet to perform up to expectations, those of both fans and the coaches.
Although he has been defended by the Bills' organization, including GM Buddy Nix, who said, "...the money he's got he's never going to live up to," he also added, "Mario wants to play better and we expect him to."
"Better" is an understatement.
Granted, the 27-year-old Williams may never be worth the enormous price tag paid for him, but this was the guy who was supposed to be a shot in the arm for a lackluster Buffalo pass rush that ranked 27th in the NFL with just 29 sacks in 2011 (they would have been dead last without their nine sack day against the Redskins).
Buffalo was also looking to Mario to help bolster the run defense (ranked 28th, giving up an average 139 per game), maybe even aid in lowering that 371.1 total yards per game average they gave up last season.
However, to this point in the year, Buffalo ranks in the bottom in nearly every defensive category. The Bills are 27th in total yards allowed with 406.5 per game (508 to New England), have let through a 28th ranked 137 yards in rushing, and are 30th in points allowed (32.8 per game). While they've made some progress in the getting to the quarterback, now ranked 13th in sacks with 10, that's been largely due to 2011 injury victim Kyle Williams, who is now healthy in 2012 and has 3.5 himself, leading the Bills.
Of the entire defensive front four, which has a combined contract total of $174 million, Kyle Williams has been the quiet hero, the player with the least expectation on his shoulders, and yet he's playing the best football of the bunch. He also leads the defensive line in tackles with 14 and has gotten to the quarterback at least once in each of the last three games.
Sure, some of those numbers are due to the matchup problems that Mario creates, but for the guy on the line making the most money (more than any other defensive player in the NFL actually), you'd think he'd have more than assist kudos to lean on by week five.
In 2012, Mario has nine tackles (12th on the team) and just 1.5 sacks (just .5 away from 55 for his career), which may be second on the team, but is ranked a lowly 63rd in the entire NFL. This from a guy who got $19 million just for signing his name and who stands to make another $6 million total in 2012.
Yes, it's still only the quarter point of the season, but this was more money than Buffalo had doled out in... well... ever. The inflated expectations made for the need to see some pretty big stats, not just someone who looks imposing in a Bills' uniform.
Though Mario's come out recently and revealed he's been nursing a wrist injury since the last preseason game (shades of Ryan Fitzpatrick's "rib injury" last season) which has hampered his ability to truly utilize his strength in maneuvering offensive linemen on the field, the money given to him necessarily brings a high bar for performance regardless of injury (and the four weeks it takes to reveal it).
In short, Mario just hasn't produced, giving fans only occasional bursts of the spectacular, but showing nothing concrete with which to base a winning season off of.
Both GM Nix and Mario himself knew that taking this kind of A-Rod money would put Williams "under the microscope" and leave him open to be "criticized at every turn", but he could help himself by finding ways to make a bigger difference on the field.
This was supposed to be Buffalo's big defensive win in free agency, not another overpaid player disappointing the extreme expectations of fans in Western New York.
This week against San Francisco could present a great opportunity to gain some ground in those key tackle and sack categories, though. The 49ers have given up 12 sacks this season already (sixth most in the NFL) and though they've got Frank Gore helping them to 167 yards per game rushing (3rd), they are only ranked 19th in total yards and could see their offensive line getting porous throughout the day, leading to some forced turnovers (the Bills do have four INTs and have forced seven fumbles, recovering four).
It's not just Mario who needs a bounce-back game defensively (though his paycheck may make him the most visible), as the entire Buffalo defense needs to respond after that 52 point bomb the Patriots dropped on them last week.
The rebuilt Bills' defense needs to start showing they're up to the challenge, that they aren't the same product as last season, and though it will be an entire team effort to improve, it has to start with Mario Williams.
And it has to start soon.