In his introductory press conference at One Bills Drive after signing with Buffalo, defensive end
"I know what this city wants and needs and that’s fine with me," said Williams of Buffalo. "That’s not pressure. I play football. That’s what I do. My main goal is to play football that helps us win. This city also embraced me.”
That was far from the case in Houston six years ago.
Being the first pick in any NFL draft creates enough pressure, but in 2006 there were other factors at work. Holding the top draft choice the Texans had their pick of the litter, which included dynamic offensive weapons like Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and Texas QB Vince Young, who had just led the Longhorns to a national title and was a Houston native.
NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, who was the Texans GM at the time, paints the picture.
“There was a tremendous push for Bush and Vince Young was the hometown hero,” he said. “The week of the draft there were three full page ads in the Houston Chronicle, the big newspaper down there, to draft Vince Young. One of the sponsors of the team at a rate of over $1 million a year goes on the radio and tells Texans fans to cancel their season tickets if the Texans don’t take Vince Young. So that was what it was like.”
Casserly was determined to address Houston’s defense in an effort to develop a more potent pass rush to have better success against division rival Indianapolis and Peyton Manning. He began contract negotiations with Mario Williams and had him signed the night before the draft with the Texans formally selecting the N.C. State star the next day.
“In Houston the poor young man was booed,” said Casserly. “He was ridiculed. There was a lot criticism of myself, and I purposely tried to put as much on me and take it off of him because at 20-years old and just being drafted this wasn’t his fault. From there everybody was against the kid.”
“When I first got drafted there was a lot more negativity from the city of Houston,” said Williams. “Everybody was looking for this person or that person, so there was a lot more negative stuff coming out of that. My rookie year getting drafted there was more hate because they wanted the hometown kid. They didn’t care about anything else.”
Williams, who suffered an injury early in his rookie year only made the situation worse.
“His first year he’s banged up and can’t practice, but plays through the injury and they’re ripping him,” said Casserly. “He was playing the run pretty well, but with the injury he doesn’t have the burst so he wasn’t getting sacks. Fortunately the coaches never doubted him. They thought he was going to be great.”
Williams finished his rookie campaign with 4.5 sacks. The production, or lack thereof, only fanned the flames.
Healthy in 2007 Williams began to come into his own and the popular perception in Houston that the Texans had made a big mistake in choosing him began to shift a bit.
“His second year he did fine,” said Casserly. “Then finally it started to shift when they played New Orleans in the regular season and he had a good game and Bush didn’t.”
Williams had six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in Houston’s 23-10 victory over the Saints, while Bush managed 49 total yards.
Two weeks later Williams took it a step further in their second meeting with division rival Tennessee. With Vince Young at quarterback for the Titans, Williams dropped Young for two and a half sacks to go with his seven tackles.
“Only then did the thinking start to shift where people thought taking Williams was the right idea,” Casserly said.
Williams finished the 2007 season with 14 sacks to lead the AFC and earn his first Pro Bowl nod.
Though just 21 years of age his rookie year, Williams never responded to any of the negativity that surrounded him being the team’s number one pick.
“I never understood the negativity towards me, especially when you can’t choose as a draft pick,” said Williams. “I knew I couldn’t control what people say, so I never focused on it. I just focused on becoming a better player.”
“I think he handled it tremendously,” said Casserly. “He was 20-years old. We knew he was a class act, but he comes into that situation and he doesn’t say a word. He takes it on the chin the whole way. He keeps playing hurt and fighting through practice. He wasn’t 100 percent, but he just does his job, keeps his mouth shut and just goes. He had to put up with all of this nonsense and he never said a word. He just kept going forward and that was it. He just handled it with class.”
That’s why when asked about any pressure he might feel in Buffalo when perceived by fans as the savior for the Bills sack attack he smiles.
“It is football now and me being comfortable, my teammates being comfortable, my coaches being comfortable,” Williams said. “What happened to me in the past, like I said from the day I got drafted to last year missing that part of the season, I got a lot to do for myself and that’s what matters, to go out and play to get me better, to get my teammates better, my teammates to make me better and ultimately for us to win games. So, pretty much I don’t see any pressure, I just see work that needs to be done, not just for myself but for my teammates because we all have to hold each other accountable.”
“He gets it,” said Bills GM Buddy Nix. “He’s got his head screwed on right. It doesn’t bother him. He doesn’t want to be looked at as the savior. He wants to play good and he wants to make everyone around him better. Pressure doesn’t matter to him and it doesn’t matter to me. The most pressure he’ll ever have is being the first pick in the draft six years ago.”
Charley Casserly can be found on twitter at @CharleyCasserly.