The Houston Texans return to action following their bye week by hosting the Buffalo Bills this Sunday at Reliant Stadium. That means that Houston’s all-time leader in sacks, Mario Williams, will return to Houston for the first time since signing a six year, $100 million dollar free-agent deal with the Bills this past offseason. The deal included $50 million dollars in guaranteed money, making it the highest contract ever given to a defensive player in NFL history.
Williams, the Texans’ number 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, was the Texans first pick in the tenure of GM Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak. It was a controversial one at the time as Houston passed on then Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and hometown hero and national champion Vince Young to select the mostly unknown Williams. In his six seasons with the Texans, he made that decision look like the right one. Williams recorded 241 tackles, the franchise record 53 sacks, 11 forced fumbles and was selected to two Pro Bowls as a defensive end.
When the Texans hired Wade Phillips to be their defensive coordinator before the 2011 season, that meant a switch from the 4-3 defense they previously employed to Phillip’s signature 3-4 front. That also meant a switch for Williams as well, as he wad moved from defensive end to outside linebacker in the new defense. Phillips envisioned Mario playing the role that All-Pro DeMarcus Ware played when he was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Williams would be an exclusive rush linebacker, and standing up as opposed to being in a 3 point stance would allow him to move around and wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
That plan turned out to be a good one as Williams had five sacks in the Texans’ first 5 games last season and was on pace for 16 sacks, which would have broken his own single-season franchise mark of 14 set in 2007. However, his season abruptly came to a halt in week 6 when he suffered a torn triceps vs the Oakland Raiders. Despite losing their best defensive player, the Texans soldiered on with their “Next Man Up” mantra that defined their 2011 season. It was one in which they overcame injury after injury to key contributors to win the AFC South and make the playoffs for the first time.
After Williams went down, the Houston defense actually improved, finishing 2nd in the league in total defense. Connor Barwin slid into Williams’ position and recorded a career best 11.5 sacks and rookie Brooks Reed moved into the starting line-up and had 6 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries in 10 starts. The Texans front seven became a swarming, disruptive unit and the “Bulls on Parade” were born, a moniker given to the defense by Barwin himself. For the first time in franchise history, Houston had a dominating defense that was capable of taking over games.
The Williams injury gave Smith and the front office 11 games plus 2 playoff games to see the defense in action without “Super Mario.” When the off-season rolled around, they knew they would have to make some tough decisions in order to get under the salary cap for 2012. They had a slew of free-agents and impending free-agents entering the final year of their deals, and they couldn’t pay them all. The unrestricted free-agents included Williams, TE Joel Dreessen, OG Mike Briesel, CB Jason Allen and K Neil Rackers, all of whom signed with other teams.
Despite the injury, Houston knew that Williams would command a huge sum of money on the open market. They had first rights to negotiate with him before other teams, but set a threshold that they would not go over. Williams chose to test the open market and once the Bills flew him to Buffalo and unloaded the Brinks truck, Mario was no longer a Texan. Some national analysts felt that the Texans made a mistake by not locking him up before he hit free agency.
However, Houston was smart to look at the big picture and there are several reasons why. For starters, the Texans also had a key player who was a restricted free-agent last off-season. His name was Arian Foster and the Texans had 2 choices. They could franchise him on a one year deal and face the prospect of him hitting the market in 2013, or they could sign him to a long term deal and not have to use the franchise tag. Wisely they chose option B, and signed Foster to a 5 year deal worth $43.5 million, included $20.75 million guaranteed.
If you do the math, you see Foster’s contract included a little over $29 million less guaranteed than Williams. Of course there is more of a premium placed on pass rushing defensive ends in the NFL than running backs, who are considered easier to find and develop. However, when you look at who has made a bigger impact this season, the answer is in favor of Foster by a landslide. Not that it necessarily did, but if the Texans had to choose Foster or Williams, Foster was definitely the right choice. Considering how their defense performed last season without Mario, Foster was definitely more indispensable for this team.
Now suppose Houston had matched Buffalo’s deal and retained Williams. Then they would not have had the flexibility to make two other important moves prior to the season. Those were extending the contracts of QB Matt Schaub and LT Duane Brown, locking them up before they had the chance to become free-agents after this season. The reason the Texans have not missed Williams at all is because Smith, Kubiak and company have drafted extremely well. The last 2 first round picks, DE J.J. Watt and OLB Whitney Mercilus, have ensured that the pass rush will be in good hands for years to come.