Eight games are not nearly enough to determine a bona fide bust.
But when a supposedly elite pass rusher has only 3½ sacks at the season’s halfway point on a defense ranked near the bottom of the league in yards allowed after signing a six-year, $100 million free-agent contract, eyebrows can’t help but be raised — especially when the eyes below those brows see a player who does not appear to be giving his all 100 percent of the time.
Say hello to two-time Pro Bowler Mario Williams, an enigmatic player who has fallen significantly short of filling the bill for a Buffalo team that paid a fortune for his services after the former first overall pick of the Texans set a franchise record with 53 sacks in six seasons in Houston.
Expected to be the centerpiece of a dramatically upgraded defense, Williams has instead been the center of the kind of negative attention one would expect on a team that has not met most close league observers’ expectations.
“Based on our callers — and take that with a grain of salt — the predominant opinion is that he’s a bust, and that the Bills didn’t do their homework,” Howard Simon, a talk show host on WGR 550 Sports Radio in Buffalo, told PFW prior to Week Nine. “There are questions about his work ethic. People call in and say they focus on him during games and that he takes plays off. (Fans are) beginning to think that (the Bills) didn’t examine that he doesn’t have the desire, (the) passion to get better as a football player.
“That’s a big worry.”
But with Williams almost immediately claiming to be no longer worried about a freak left wrist injury suffered in the final week of the preseason after it was operated on Oct. 23 in Alabama, all might not be lost for a team continuing to tread water in the flawed AFC East.
“I have not worked out during the season like I did in the offseason. It has been a while. I think that is the biggest thing,” Williams said in an Oct. 29 press conference addressing his recent surgery. “I am a hands-on person. Everything I do is with my hands. Working out, not being able to do that is just mentally frustrating. I just felt like I was stagnant. That is why I am very excited about having been able to go clean it out and being optimistic about the things that happened as far as going forward from now on.”
Williams also had a message for a Buffalo fan base that, according to Simon, “usually resents guys getting big contracts," especially when they don't play up to lofty expectations.
“This is not me,” Williams said. “I have said that before. I have never had something where it has lingered this long. It either is season ending or it (gets better) in a week. Like I said, it has been almost nine weeks now. That has just been tough. But you get injured. Everybody gets injured and things like that.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just being able to rebound for the second part of the season and get after it.”
In that press conference, we hear that there was a sense in Buffalo that Williams was a different person, with a better attitude and he seemed to be more "at ease," and news on Sunday further illustrated the injury he was playing through.
According to an ESPN report, Williams was playing with a torn ligament in his wrist that made it "like he was playing with one arm." The report indicated that we would see a different, improved Williams post-surgery, and he did lead the Bills with seven tackles — including one sack and two tackles for loss — in his return to Houston, but the Bills fell to his former team 21-9.
There are some league observers, however, who have seen enough this season to conclude that the Bills got sold a bill of goods when they pounced on the opportunity to bring Williams to Buffalo three days into this year’s free-agency period.
“They missed on Mario,” one league executive told PFW. “Say what you want – he was not that dominant or great in Houston. They played great defense when he was on I.R.”
Williams told FOX 26 Sports in Houston earlier this week that he never wanted to enter free agency in the first place.
“But it was a one-way door given to me by the GM (Rick Smith) to leave Houston,” Williams explained. “I want the fans there to know entering free agency was not my decision.”
There are some who believe statements like that could do Williams a lot more harm than good.
“He would be better off to keep quiet,” a Texans team insider who followed Williams closely when he was in Houston told PFW. “The more he talks about Houston, the more everybody knows he’d rather be back here.”
The reality was, though, that as talented and productive as he was, Williams had outlived his usefulness in Houston.
“He never got an offer and never was going to get an offer,” the insider said. “Once they brought in guys like (OLB Connor) Barwin, (OLB Brooks) Reed, (ILB Brian) Cushing and (DE J.J.) Watt — and now (rookie OLB Whitney) Mercilus — they’re not going to take a guy that takes plays off.
“They won’t say this publicly — but they’re not. They will sacrifice a little talent for a guy that plays his ass off all the time.”
But that doesn’t mean Williams still can’t be an extremely valuable commodity in Buffalo.
“Bottom line, he's a powerful rusher who must be accounted for,” one league talent evaluator said. “Everyone wants to run him out of Buffalo because he's not producing the sack numbers, but when you flush production to the rest of the team, you can still have a big impact.
“He has not done it as much as you'd expect of a $100-million pass rusher — and that's where all the backlash is coming from — but make no mistake, he's still a rare, valuable commodity that all teams would like to have.”