Friday, March 16, 2012
Wow. What a surreal couple of days to be a Buffalo Bills fan, as they have signed the second-most coveted free agent player available this year. (He'd have been the most coveted, if not for Peyton Manning being available.) Williams is a former first-overall draft pick who has mostly lived up to his lofty potential thus far, except for an injury-shortened year last year, and he's only 27 years old, which means that as he enters what should be the best four or five years of his career...he's going to enjoy them here.
This is big. Stuff like this doesn't happen here. The Buffalo Bills don't usually grab any coveted free agents of any type; if they sign anybody at all, it's a week or two after the free agent signing period has started, and the guys they grab up are the NFL equivalent of leftovers.
Now, I don't think this is because the Bills are 'cheap'. I think it's because the last bunch of execs running things here, well, didn't really know what they were doing, so the Bills have been in this odd position for over a decade of not being good enough to attract free agents but not being bad enough to have top five draft picks to build with, either. But now they feel that the roster is looking up and it was time to add a big talent...which they did. Kudos to them.
Current GM Buddy Nix has been criticized in his first two years of basically standing pat at free agency, but I'm not sure what choice he had either year. The roster was in the worst shape of the entire sorry decade when he took over, so signing free agents would have generally made the Bills look like the Washington Redskins of recent years: a team with no clue trying to luck into a good team by throwing money around. Nix made clear that his intent was to build through the draft and then add some free agent talent. He's said all along that when he feels there's a player available who can significantly help this team now, then "we go and get him". Well, they did that!
Signing Mario Williams doesn't make the Bills an automatic contender, but it's a big piece to a puzzle that doesn't have as many remaining pieces as some believe. His presence will give the Bills something they haven't had in years: a guy on the defensive line whom offensive coordinators have to take into account. That's big in itself. If he can take on double-teams, it will free up the rest of the line to wreak some havoc. Basically, this move makes the Bills better at the all-important line of scrimmage.
What else do the Bills need, then? Another wide receiver, most of all. Another outside linebacker, possibly a better left tackle, and perhaps a cornerback (although the secondary should benefit greatly from the improved pass-rush that Williams's signing virtually guarantees). Williams's arrival gives the Bills a lot more flexibility when next month's draft arrives, as they are now no longer really beholden to drafting whoever the best pass rusher available when they pick happens to be. (They pick tenth overall.) Perhaps they might even consider themselves in a good enough position to trade down and add picks.
Williams's signing was not a quick process. He got here Tuesday and spent all of Wednesday here before finally signing on Thursday. Apparently he was doing quite a bit of touring the Buffalo area, which I suppose was necessary; teams that haven't been winning need to show off their cities to convince guys, and Buffalo's reputation, unfair as it is, is one that can be muted with some smart display of the good stuff around here. The best sign was when Williams showed up at the airport on Wednesday, not to fly to his next potential team, but to pick up his fiancee. That seemed to display that he was impressed and that he was giving this place serious thought. There's a school of thinking that says that Buffalo's poor reputation as a city is one factor that keeps free agents from signing here, but that has never made sense to me; if a player feels that a team is a winner, he'll go there. The Bills haven't been winners in twelve years, but for the first time there's a real sense that maybe they're about to be.
So anyway: Welcome to Western New York, Mario Williams! And may the Force be with you.