Williams’ signing gives Buffalo hope

It’s impossible to say whether Mario Williams will justify the largest contract ever given a defensive player in NFL history.

But the Buffalo Bills just bought the one thing this downtrodden franchise needed even more desperately than an elite pass rusher entering his prime.


For too long, there was none in western New York.

Buffalo hasn’t reached a playoff game since Bill Clinton was putting the wraps on his US presidency. The Music City Miracle that knocked the 1999 Bills out of the playoffs proved an ominous sign of the football apocalypse to come.

Twelve seasons without a winning record have followed. Five different head coaches have come and gone. Botched drafts were exemplified by busts like Mike Williams and Aaron Maybin. Mediocre quarterbacking ranged from homegrown flops like J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards to retreads (Drew Bledsoe) and journeymen (Kelly Holcomb).

As the glory days of Jim Kelly and Co. became distant memories, the Bills were forced into desperate measures trying to remain viable in one of the NFL’s smallest markets. Even those efforts proved embarrassing. NFL fans in Toronto have proven they would rather jump off CN Tower than watch the mediocre product when the Bills arrived for a “home” game.

Williams changes all that.

Inking him to a six-year, $100 million contract on Thursday will help the Bills better the paltry 27 team sacks produced last season.

Heck, Williams may be able to crush that many quarterbacks on his own.

He notched 43.5 sacks between 2007 and 2010 despite the double-teaming that came with being Houston’s only significant pass-rushing threat. Williams had five in five games last season before being sent to injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. He had gotten off to a strong start despite being thrust into a hybrid end/outside linebacker role in the new 3-4 scheme installed by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Although the Texans wanted Williams back, the contract numbers didn’t work for a team pressed against the cap. Plus, Williams is returning to a more natural fit in new Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt’s 4-3 defense.

As both a head and assistant coach, Wannstedt has a sound track record of fielding standout ends like Jason Taylor and Trace Armstrong. The Bills also have the makings of a strong supporting cast around Williams with 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus and stout veteran Kyle Williams at defensive tackle. There’s the possibility of more help in the draft and the potential return of outside linebacker Shawne Merriman provided he doesn’t become a cap casualty. Williams, too, has upside to continue improving at only 27 years old.

In the bigger picture, the Williams signing affirms that Buffalo can bring a big-time free agent to a sometimes-frigid NFL outpost as something more than a desperate circus-like attempt to sell tickets a la Terrell Owens in 2009. Depending on how the Bills fare, this could become the kind of watershed acquisition needed to rejuvenate a franchise that had become irrelevant, like the 1993 addition of Reggie White did for the Green Bay Packers.

Williams came at a heavy price. The Bills have guaranteed $50 million of his contract. That translates to roughly 68 million chicken wings at Buffalo’s world-famous Anchor Bar.

The Bills, though, had no choice but to add enough spice, celery and blue-cheese dressing to complete the deal. Once he surprisingly agreed to a free-agent visit, Bills management knew they couldn’t let Williams leave town without a contract like New Orleans wide receiver Robert Meachem did earlier in the week.

Adding insult to injury, Meachem agreed to a contract with San Diego while in Buffalo traveling on the Bills’ dime. Speaking to co-host Gil Brandt and me on Sirius XM NFL Radio, Meachem said he thought San Diego was a better place to raise his two daughters. Put that on the list of reasons a multitude of players have spurned Buffalo in the past.

If the same happened with Williams, team executives risked being thrown over Niagara Falls sans barrel by Bills fans who couldn’t handle another round of disappointment.

Combined with the signings of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Stevie Johnson to large contract extensions within recent months, the Bills are making the kind of financial commitment needed to truly compete once again in the AFC East. General manager Buddy Nix is slowly but surely fixing the roster damage done by prior regimes. And with a 5-2 start last season, head coach Chan Gailey showed he can field a winner until a lack of depth contributed to Buffalo’s 1-8 finish.

None of this guarantees a Super Bowl berth, including the Williams signing. But the Bills are a lot closer to getting there with Super Mario in the fold.