There’s always been a “yes, but” associated with Mario Williams’ eight-year NFL career. Let me take you back to the pre-draft process in 2006, when Houston owner Bob McNair and GM Charlie Casserly were adamant about favoring the pass rusher from North Carolina State, Williams, over the offensive weapons, quarterback Vince Young or running back Reggie Bush, with the first pick in the draft. “We’re going to be facing Peyton Manning twice a year in our division,’’ McNair said, “so I don’t think this is a really tough decision for us.”
Williams had some good moments for the Texans—a three-sack mauling of Donovan McNabb against Washington, 3.5 sacks of Jay Cutler against Denver, and a two-sack game against the aforementioned Manning in 2008. But he never developed into the consistent pass-rush threat the Texans thought they’d bought with the first pick in the ’06 draft (six seasons, 53 sacks), and Houston didn’t fight when he got a rich free-agent contract with Buffalo before last season. His first season with the Bills seemed like more of the same—a little bit hurt (he had left wrist surgery in the Bills’ bye week), a little bit effective (10.5 sacks), and distracted. He broke off his engagement, there was a lawsuit over the return of a pricy engagement ring, his ex released some ugly text messages between them … and, well, Williams’ first 12 months in Buffalo were mostly a debacle.
“Now,’’ Williams said this week, “it’s pretty much all football, and I couldn’t be happier.”
If indeed that’s the case, it’s showing. After seven games, he’s tied for second in the league with 10 sacks. His Week 2 tour de force performance against Carolina (4.5 sacks, six quarterback pressures) is one of the best games by a defensive player this season, and his play the last two weeks (2.5 sacks, three knockdowns, nine pressures) is the kind of consistent pressure the Bills need to have while their offense is struggling with inconsistent quarterback play.
Occasionally in his past, Williams could be faulted for not playing relentlessly for four quarters. Not taking plays off, exactly. But not coming with the passion the Texans thought they saw in Williams at North Carolina State. That wasn’t the case in the fourth quarter at Miami in Week 7. With the Dolphins trying to add to a 21-20 lead with seven minutes left, Williams faked Miami tackle Tyson Clabo, then stormed inside to sack Ryan Tannehill before he could work through half of his receiver progression. Miami punted two plays later. Then, with three minutes to go, Williams overpowered Clabo, pushed him into Tannehill, and the ensuing forced fumble was recovered by the Bills’ Kyle Williams. Six plays later, Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter kicked the winning field goal. The Bills stole one, in large part due to Mario Williams being the best player on the field in the last seven minutes on an 87-degree day in south Florida.
In the last three years, Williams has had three different head coaches, three different defensive coordinators, and three different line coaches—all of whom have had different ideas about where he should be positioned and how he should rush the passer. This year’s coordinator, Mike Pettine, has moved Williams around some from his standard left end spot in the Bills’ 4-3 scheme—though both sacks against Miami came from that side. Williams told me this season’s coaching staff and defensive group with Buffalo “is the best environment I’ve been in since I got in the league. I’ve got a [defensive line] coach, Anthony Weaver, who played the game and knows what to expect and can identify with what we’re going through out there. I’ve had a lot of different coaches recently, and it’s unbelievable when you’re on the same page with a coach and a group of players how much difference that makes. I really feel like now, with the scheme we’re running, nothing can get in the way of me succeeding.’’
Interesting point: Weaver, a free-agent defensive lineman, signed with Houston in 2006, which was Williams’ rookie year. They’re close, and Williams brought him up three times in a 12-minute talk this week.
I asked Williams if the criticism he’s taken in his career has bothered him—and whether he thought it was valid.
“I’m playing angry—but not at the critics,’’ he said. “It just helps me to play that way. What people on the outside say really doesn’t bother me. I know you hear that a lot, but with me, the only thing that matters is what my coaches and the guys in the [defensive meeting] room think.’’
This will be good news to Bills fans: Williams is on pace (though many players have been in midseason) to threaten the all-time sack record of 22.5. This will also be good news: He says he doesn’t care.
“I don’t look at that,’’ he said. “I just look at the next game.”
That would be Sunday at New Orleans. On the fast carpet of the Superdome. Mostly against right tackle Zach Strief, who most likely will have Williams on the brain over the next 48 hours.
About Last Night …
Carolina 31, Tampa Bay 13. A momentary respite from the “Fire Schiano and Fire Him Yesterday” stuff dominating the west coast of Florida. A word about the Carolina offense. Could you have envisioned, four games ago, after the Panthers put up a measly six points at Arizona, that they’d win three in a row and score in the 30s every time? In the span of three games, Cam Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have shown they’re mixing the run and pass perfectly. Newton has averaged 27 pass-drops and 10 rushes a game; DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, the primary backs, have rushed 68 times in those three games. So: 98 runs from the three of them, 81 pass-drops from Newton, and good ball-control drives. Carolina’s a real threat in the NFC wild card race now.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Greg Jennings, wide receiver, Minnesota (No. 15). The Vikings host arch-rival Green Bay Sunday night, and Minnesota’s in disarray. Hard to imagine the Vikes, switching quarterbacks back to Christian Ponder, will get better facing the hot Pack. That brings us to Jennings, who switched teams in free agency in the offseason, and hasn’t paid many dividends in his first six games—five of which have been touchdown-less for him; he hasn’t had a 100-yard receiving game yet. For the year, he has 24 catches and two touchdowns. Good thing for Jennings the first Pack-Vikes game is in Minneapolis, because he won’t be treated very well by the crowd when he returns to Lambeau, after criticizing Aaron Rodgers in the offseason and saying he felt “brainwashed’’ while in Green Bay. Said Jennings this week: “There were things said that if I could take back, I would. I would. I absolutely would. But I can’t. So I have to live life with the cards that I dealt myself.’’
Sound Bite of the Week
“I guess [the leash] was short the whole first three games, and I didn’t realize it.’’
—Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder, who got yanked because of injury for Matt Cassel, and then for performance by Josh Freeman in the first six games of the season. Ponder is likely to get the start Sunday against Green Bay, with Freeman missing because of concussion symptoms.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Kansas City to stay unbeaten. Here’s what stands in the way of KC flying to Denver in three weeks 9-0: Cleveland at home Sunday (with Jason Campbell the apparently reluctant quarterback choice of the Browns’ coaching staff), Buffalo on the road, and a bye. Feels like a matchup of 9-0 versus 8-1.
2. The quarterback market. When the status of Brett Favre is inquired about, and Brady Quinn gets signed by his 64th team, you know we’re scraping the bottom of the quarterback barrel. And just think: There are 10 regular-season game weeks left. Warm up, Steve DeBerg. Got anything left, Eric HIpple?
3. The real Miami to stand up. The Dolphins, 3-3, travel to New England Sunday. Miami won its first three by an average of seven a game. Miami lost its last three by an average of nine a game. Ryan Tannehill’s beat up. Looked before the year that Miami might be ready to challenge an adjusting-on-the-fly New England team. Doesn’t look that way now.
4. Percy Harvin. He hasn’t played a game in 51 weeks, since missing the last seven games last year hurt and, obviously, getting labrum surgery in his hip during training camp. Looks like a gametime decision for Seattle’s Monday nighter at St. Louis, but I hear he’s running freely and very fast.
5. Make-or-break time for the Cards. Arizona (3-4) has what looks to be a soft spot in the schedule and a chance to stay relevant. Next three foes: 4-16. The first two are at home. But—and it’s a big but—the first two are the biggest disappointments in football this year—the two-win Falcons and Texans.
6. The left side of the Denver offensive line. Tackle Chris Clark gave up three sacks Sunday night in Indianapolis, and guard Zane Beadles was leaky too. According to Pro Football Focus, Clark and Beadles gave up eight pressures/hits of Peyton Manning in addition to the sacks. Washington won’t be the biggest test Sunday, but you can be sure the Broncos will slide a tight end or chip with a back on more passing downs than they did Sunday night.
7. Shahanan returneth. Shanahans, really. Mike, the coach, and Kyle, the former Cherry Creek High football star—now the Washington coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, return to play the Broncos Sunday. But once that’s out the way, the real story is this: Robert Griffin III had his best game of the season by far last Sunday in putting up 45 points on the Bears, and he finally looked like the sligingest, option-weaponest quarterback in the league—exactly what he was last season.
8. Peyton’s ankle. As much as the Broncos and Manning pooh-poohed him missing practice Wednesday because of the sore ankle from the game in Indy Sunday, I’m not buying it. Manning puts such a value on practice that him actually missing one during the season means he’s got to be really affected.
9. London calling. With three 2014 games announced for Wembley Stadium on Thursday, it’ll be interesting to hear the Sunday pre-game-show spin on when we can expect a permanent team in London. I’m guessing it’s at least five years away. The market must still be made.
10. Favre’s head trauma. With the former quarterback saying he can’t remember some portions of his recent past (such as a season of his daughter playing soccer) in an interview with ESPN radio in Washington this week, the focus, again, will be on head trauma and its long-term impact. Which, even in the midst of a very exciting season, is the way it should be.