Welcome Super Mario.
Putting on the equivalent of an all-out blitz, the Bills stunned NFL onlookers Thursday by pulling off the biggest free-agent signing coup in their checkered history, signing defensive end Mario Williams.
Behind quarterback Peyton Manning, Williams, the former Houston Texans standout, was the biggest name on the free-agent market. The 6-7, 290-pound pass-rushing specialist instantly elevates Buffalo's defensive line into elite status. Williams will pair with Pro Bowl tackle Kyle Williams and last year's No. 3 overall pick Marcell Dareus up front in new coordinator Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 scheme.
A two-time Pro Bowl starter, Williams will reportedly be paid the largest contract ever awarded a defensive player in NFL history: six years, nearly $100 million with $50 million guaranteed. The previous best deal was six years, $91.5 million with $42 million guaranteed that Chicago gave Julius Peppers in 2010.
"I'll try and speak as clearly as I can," said Williams during a late afternoon news conference at Ralph Wilson Stadium. "I was back signing the papers and could hardly sign my name ... I'm ecstatic."
The feeling was mutual.
"This is a great day for the Buffalo community, the Bills organization and our fans," said CEO Russ Brandon, part of a beleaguered front office that hasn't seen the playoffs in 12 years.
Said general manager Buddy Nix, who made good on his promise to be more aggressive in free agency after two years of cautious rebuilding: "It's an exciting day for us and our team. We got a lot better."
Williams, the first overall pick in 2006 of the Texans, has 53 career sacks and 241 career tackles. He is a player opposing offensive coordinators have to account for on every play, and an "X" factor at defensive end Buffalo hasn't had since Pro Bowl Hall of Famer Bruce Smith in the 80s and 90s.
When Williams arrived in Buffalo on Tuesday, the start of the league's free-agency signing period, it was expected that he would merely check out what the Bills had to offer as part of a whirlwind free agency tour. At least six other clubs were interested in him.
But Nix, coach Chan Gailey, his staff, current and former Bills players and the entire front office with owner Ralph Wilson's blessing knew if they let Williams leave without a deal in place they would never hear from him again.
That meant a fast-and-furious courtship, which began by flying Williams to Buffalo in a private jet from his home in North Carolina. Sightseeing trips, dinners, and recruiting pitches by players like Kyle Willams and Bills Hall of Fame quarterback and current season ticket holder Jim Kelly followed.
By Wednesday, Williams had invited his fiancee to Buffalo to also check out the area.
Fans even got into the action. At a Buffalo Sabres NHL game, they chanted "We want Mario" when an unconfirmed rumor spread he was attending a game Wednesday night. A business near the stadium flashed "Welcome Mario Williams" on an electronic advertising panel. A pizza shop put his name on a pie, reported buffalobills.com. Fans even gathered in the stadium parking lot in hopes of getting a glimpse of the star pass rusher.
The sales pitch worked.
"You hear about what it's like to live here and until you actually get here and see what's in front of you and the fans and all this great city has to offer ... seeing my name on a pizza, it was crazy, but it definitely got the message across," Williams said.
Still, while making a guy feel welcomed and paying him a king's ransom were important hurdles to clear for the Bills, landing Williams also took convincing him they are serious about winning. That's why signing him was so unexpected.
Buffalo hasn't been to the playoffs in 12 years; it is coming off 4-12 and 6-10 seasons under Nix and Gailey. Its defense had just 29 sacks last year, third fewest in the NFL, and gave up an AFC-worst 434 points.
Ultimately, Williams was intrigued that he could be the player to get Buffalo "over the hump." He was particularly wooed by Wannstedt's defense, which is known to favor defensive ends, allowing them to get up field. Last year in Houston, Williams sacrified by switching to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips 3-4 look. He had five sacks in five games until tearing a pectoral muscle and missing the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, he said knowing the Bills had two premier defensive tackles inside in Williams and Dareus made him believe this is a scheme where sacks could pile up for everyone.
"The biggest thing for a defensive end is getting around that edge and when the QB steps up," he said. "That was a huge sell to have those two guys in the middle. I'm excited. I had a chance to talk to them and go over thimgs about scheme and things to expect, but most importantly what it's like living here. How would I feel comfortable outside of football? They really helped me out."
His new teammates began instantly weighing in on Twitter.
"A healthy Kyle Williams and Mario Williams on the same side rushing would be a nightmare," said Bills center Eric Wood, who would know.
Williams' impact could be subtle as well. For years, opposing offenses have terrorized Buffalo by effectively using the tight end. Now, players like New England's Rob Gronkowski will have to stay in and help block Williams. Even a small chip on a premier pass rusher will affect a tight end's route and how deep he runs it.
Signing Williams, 27, doesn't come without risk.
His sack totals have dropped steadily from 14 in 2007 to 12 to 9.0 to 8.5 to last year's five, albeit due to injury. But it's rare to see such a talent hit free agency in his prime. The Texans ultimately felt he was dispensable given the success they enjoyed without him playing Wade Phillips' linebacker-dominated 3-4.
"You don't get many chances like this in life to be the guy to come in and help the team get over the hump," Williams said. "With Kyle and Marcel Dareus, I feel we can do that. I can't wait to get started."
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