All the early hype had Mario winding up in Chicago or Atlanta. But Buffalo, never a haven for top-flight free agents, had landed the first visit. Players, coaches, everyone was called into help. The goal was simple: Don't let the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft leave town.
It turns out he never did. Mario Williams cancelled all his other visits and agreed to terms with Buffalo on Thursday. The Bills, the long stumbling Bills and their rust belt town, shook off decades of trends in professional sports to win the free-agent derby for the former Houston Texans star.
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The contract is filthy rich – six years for $100 million with $50 million in guarantees. So, no, this isn't out of the goodness of his heart.
Still, he could've gotten richer anywhere. That he chose Buffalo says something, both about Mario Williams and how the potentially new-look Bills understand they have to be both aggressive and unapologetic if they are ever going to compete again.
Kyle Williams began to believe this was going to happen at dinner Tuesday night when Mario kept directing the conversation to the scheme of the interior line, to the chemistry in the defensive line meeting room and to the mood of the locker room as a whole.
Then, after dinner, rather than retreat to his hotel, they drove back to the Bills' facility around until 11, and just hung around comfortably. Throughout Mario's constantly extending trip, there were more questions for the players, most of them about relationships on and off the field.
With the coaches, there was intense film study to cement an understanding of how he could fit in with an interior crew of Kyle Williams and budding star Marcell Dareus. The fact that Buffalo isn't known for nightclubs or gated communities or soothing December temperatures wasn't discussed much, if at all. This was about football. This was about finding a comfortable place.
"He doesn't seem like anyone who needs the flash or the attention, big lights," Kyle Williams told WGR's Howard Simon Show. "If he comes here, the kind of noise we could make with our play, and what our D-line could do, I think the stir that could cause us would be enough for him.
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"His thing [was], 'I want to go somewhere that I can be a puzzle that gets somebody over the hump or be somebody who puts a team on the next level,' " Kyle Williams said.
Buffalo has been on one level, the lower one, for so long that when it put together an early season three-game win streak last year, it was equal parts feel-good and cute. The Bills appreciated the attention but no one in the NFL wants to be the cuddly underdog.
This is Buffalo; with its proud history and blue-collar roots. Yet it hasn't won the AFC East since 1995 and hasn't been to the playoffs this century.
In this era of free agency where it seems like everyone has to at least visit Miami or Arizona, where "comfort level" can be the deciding factor, where agents seek the biggest market for off-field endorsement potential, Buffalo may be in the toughest spot in the league. At least little Green Bay has an aura too it, a big-band name and Lambeau Field. Increasingly it felt like all Buffalo had was memories.
Maybe not anymore.
The Bills started 5-2 and finished 6-10, but injuries all over the roster were a critical reason. There is no questioning how good the defensive line can be if everyone stays healthy – and that includes Mario.
Williams has averaged 0.74 sacks a game since his second year in the league. Once a surprise choice over Vince Young and Reggie Bush at the top of the draft, he developed into a major presence as an outside pass rusher. He had five sacks in just five games last year, before a torn pectoral muscle took him out.
His presence on a team with strong interior lineman who might free him up is what caused the Bills to outbid and out-recruit the rest of the league.
"He's looking forward to people who can take heat off of him and put heat on the quarterback as well," Kyle Williams told WGR.
The Williams Watch was nonstop news in western New York this week. This was no different than the rest of the country focusing on the Peyton Manning Tour.
Mario's movements were tracked, discussed and analyzed. It was nonstop on talk radio and the Internet. When a television reporter saw him at the airport and Mario said he was there to pick up his fiancée, the fan base nearly buckled with hope.
Buffalo just doesn't get many guys like this. In 2009 it signed a fading, downward trending Terrell Owens. Even though there still wasn't a viable quarterback to throw him the ball, fans flocked by the thousands to the team's training camp outside Rochester, N.Y.
Mario Williams isn't fading. If he's healthy, he's the prime pick up on the defensive line. This unit looks impressive on paper.
"I told him, 'if you're here and everything goes right, we'll have the best d-line in the league,' " Kyle Williams said. "He said, 'I agree.' "
Suddenly Miami's slow offseason becomes an issue. And the New York Jets' offensive line questions become more pronounced. And, sure, New England is New England, but Buffalo beat the Patriots once last year and who doesn't want to make Tom Brady and his Buffalo hotel room bashing self sweat a little bit?
Mario Williams is getting paid, big time. This isn't some charity case. But Buffalo is in the offseason mix for a change, and no one there should apologize for enjoying the moment.
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- Kyle Williams