- Ashley Fox
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Fifty million dollars can buy a lot of things, like an addition to a Houston home and a new pad in Buffalo, but it can't buy excuses, not even one. Mario Williams understands this, and he is not concerned.
It is true that to whom much is given, much is expected. Just ask Nnamdi Asomugha.
Being the highest-priced free agent in football might be the most underrated position for degree of difficulty given all of the factors involved. He is paid on past performance and on a team's current need, and the money creates almost unrealistic expectations among the fan base. The player must learn a new playbook, new terminology, new teammates, new coaches and a new city, and deal with the emotional toll of leaving friends from his former franchise.
Often, for whatever reason, the highest-priced free agent in football finds that being the highest-priced free agent in football isn't the easiest thing.
The money makes it look easy, but it is not. Sometimes, as in the case of Julius Peppers, it works. Other times, as in the case of Albert Haynesworth, it doesn't. Sometimes, Asomugha hopes, it can take more than a year for the transition to be complete before you know.
Having expectation and reality meet is harder than it looks. Williams is about to find out.
After he racked up 53 sacks in six seasons in Houston, Buffalo gave Williams a six-year deal worth potentially $100 million, with $50 million guaranteed. It was the richest contract given to a defensive player in NFL history, and the Bills are hoping the money they spent will translate into the franchise's first playoff appearance since 1999. In the 12 seasons since, they have had a winning record just once.
Williams said he isn't concerned about external expectations. He has his own, and they are high. He is coming off a season in which he missed 11 games and three-quarters of a 12th with a torn chest muscle. Williams also missed three games in 2010 after needing surgery to repair a sports hernia.
"The only expectations I feel are to come back and get back to where Mario is supposed to be," Williams told me Tuesday after his first organized team activities practice of the offseason. "That will take care of everything else. If I go out here and work and get better and get in the swing of things, everything will take care of itself. If I get stronger and be one of the elite guys, that's the only thing I worry about."
The contract says he must.
Last season, Asomugha was the man after playing eight seasons -- with no playoff appearances or winning records -- in Oakland. The Eagles gave him a five-year, $60 million deal, with $25 million guaranteed, but they failed to use him properly and he failed to thrive in the system they asked him to play. He was a press cover corner in Oakland, but was asked to play zone from all over the field in Philadelphia. It didn't work.
Did Asomugha, one of the best corners in 2010, suddenly become a mediocre player? Or was the transition for him, like it has been for others, tougher than he imagined?
Just because you get the cash doesn't mean everything else will come naturally, too.
The 6-foot-6, 292-pound Williams has a couple of advantages working in his favor. First, the stress of the situation is unlikely to faze him. He went through as tough an indoctrination into a city and sports culture as you will see.
After Houston took the then-little known Williams with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Texans fans went nuts. They booed. They wrote letters to the Houston Chronicle. They threatened to cancel their season tickets.
They love him now that he is gone.
"The funny thing is when I come back to Houston, and I still have love for everybody -- the coaches, my teammates and the fans --- I get way more recognition now than when I was there," Williams said. "The mindset wasn't the same when I came here."
Bills fans wanted Williams. They helped woo him in free agency, and for a guy who grew up in a tiny rural town in the eastern part of North Carolina, that meant something. It still does. On Monday night, a handful of Bills fans wearing helmets and holding footballs (and pens) greeted Williams at the airport.
"I can't go anywhere, pretty much," Williams said. "That's great. They truly love football here. They're behind their guys regardless of what's happening. That makes it a lot easier. That's the difference with the Texans. That wasn't the case."
Williams also is joining a defensive line that has talent, and under first-year defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt is switching back to a 4-3 scheme. Last season the Bills gave up a franchise-worst 5,938 yards, as well as 29 sacks. With Williams and Chris Kelsay at defensive end, and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus at tackle, Mario Williams said the line would have an "aggressive" personality.
"Getting upfield and tackling, that's going to be our biggest thing," Williams said.
Although he has hopped between his newly expanded home in Houston, which he plans to keep, and another home in Durham, N.C., Williams said he has spent a lot of time working out at the Bills' facility and is getting used to his new home in Buffalo. After a free-agency experience that he said was "a lot more stressful than it should've been," Williams is trying to make his transition from the Texans to the Bills as smooth as possible.
Williams knows big contracts bring big expectations, but no one is expecting more out of Williams than he is. He is not looking for excuses. He is looking for results.
9hEric D. Williams
1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo