Get a good look of Mario Williams on Sunday. This will likely be his final game as a Buffalo Bill.
“Sayonara, 94,” one teammate said two weeks ago.
On Thursday, a source confirmed that the team plans on releasing Williams after the season. The Associated Press first reported the news. By doing so, the Bills will save $12.9 million under the salary cap. This decision, of course, isn't earth-shattering. Williams has been an enigma all season, the unofficial emblem of a Rex Ryan defense gone awry.
Was it scheme? Did Williams check out? A mixture of both? Those at One Bills Drive are torn on the subject.
A lot went wrong for the Bills this 2015 season. But Mario Williams’ descent from one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers to placeholding defensive end is central to this empty 7-8 season.
A player who racked up 126 tackles, 38 sacks and five forced fumbles his first three seasons in Buffalo was invisible again last weekend. In a 16-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Williams recorded zero tackles, zero hits, zero anything through 54 snaps. He has only 17 tackles and four sacks on the season.
Williams wouldn’t take questions on Thursday — moments after news of the pending release broke — but he did chat with The News on Wednesday. And asked if it has ever crossed his mind that Sunday could be his final game in Buffalo, he said “Nope. Not at all.” Has this season gone to plan? Of course not.
“At the end of the day,” Williams said, “you just have to play what’s called and the position you’re in. You can’t do anything about it.”
That probably sounds familiar.
Williams has sharply criticized the scheme several times this season. Justifiably so, many would argue. Buffalo ranks 20th overall and 31st in sacks. Above all, he’s been unhappy dropping so much into coverage, rather than simply rushing exclusively. Williams also has ripped coaches for switching up personnel so often as offenses break the huddle, claiming this is no way to build a bully.
Center Eric Wood called Williams’ comments “disappointing,” adding that “Everybody has to buy in or else we don’t have a shot.”
He isn’t alone. One other teammate, who wished to remain anonymous, ramped it up a notch in saying Williams checked out a long time ago, back to not wanting to take part in the conditioning test before training camp.
“It’s been clear to me that Mario doesn’t care about anybody but himself,” the teammate said. “He followed that up by not giving any effort during the season and complaining about the scheme instead of manning up and saying he played like crap and doesn’t care."
Has Williams checked out? “Totally checked out.”
No, not what the Bills had in mind when they signed Williams to a historic six-year, $100 million contract in March 2012. A player bringing an uninterested attitude to the office each day — whether it’s real or perceived —set a “terrible precedent” inside the Bills locker room, the teammate added.
After all, Williams is making $11 million more than any other player on the team this season. And as the season turned south, this teammate said, there was no leadership/accountability from the highest-paid employee.
“Those guys have to be your team leaders and bell cows,” the player said. “To not give a crap like that shows why teams need to think twice before investing that much in one guy. We could easily have five solid players contributing than one guy who doesn’t give a (expletive).”
Not everyone agrees with this critique. Williams’ numbers may be down across the board, but inside linebacker Preston Brown asserts that Williams “definitely bought in” to Ryan’s defense and that effort hasn't been an issue.
“He was trying to do what the coaches asked him to,” Brown said. “When you’re 30 years old, it’s kind of hard to start doing stuff you’ve never done. … He’s out there doing his job. I know he’s out there doing his job day in and day out.”
Added cornerback Leodis McKelvin, “With him, it could be frustration in getting to the quarterback a lot more. But he wants to play — there’s no doubt about it. He wants to play. But you’re used to getting to the quarterback and now you’re making sacrifices for someone else to get to the quarterback. ... You can’t say one man did something wrong and it caused the whole defense to shut the down. It was a complete, total everything."
Williams frankly does not care if anyone believes he has checked out, saying “I don’t listen to what anybody says.”
He made it clear as early as Oct. 18 — after a 34-21 loss to Cincinnati — that he wants to rush the passer. Back then, he said he dropped into coverage more than he ever has in his 10-year career. The season progressed, he repeated that nothing was changing, so after the 35-25 loss at Washington, Williams dismissed the idea of taking a pay cut to stay.
Why would he want to stay in a scheme he disagrees with? Even Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly chimed in from London in October, asking “Didn’t we pay a lot of money for him to hit the quarterback?”
This week, Williams broke down the benefits of a defensive end rushing all game long. He relishes the mind game with an offensive tackle.
You throw punches. He throws punches. You throw a counter-punch. He throws one. And, at some point, your punch could be a game-changing play.
“At the end of the day you want to be happy and be able to do what you do on a consistent basis,” Williams said. “So, yeah, if you were going to ask me, do I want to drop or do I want to rush? I want to rush. And build something during the game, build something against the player, set things up and do what I’m accustomed to doing.”
Does he like playing in Buffalo? “Yeah, clearly. I don’t think the last three years lie if you want to talk individual.”
Those numbers over three seasons could speak for themselves. “But,” Williams cuts in, “apparently it doesn’t speak enough.”
One Bills teammate loathes such rhetoric, calling it a "cop out" and said to watch the film. To him, Williams is getting plenty of one-on-one opportunities... he's simply doing nothing with them.
“Zero effort,” the player said after one recent game. “The tape speaks for itself. … He takes two steps and stops.”
The player added that others feel the same way and grew “beyond furious.” Still, he couldn’t recall anybody voicing concerns to Williams because nobody believed it’d do any good. He described it as a lost cause, adding that longtime Bill Kyle Williams is the only player who could’ve spoken up to Mario Williams.
And in a cruel twist of irony, Kyle Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in that same October loss to Cincinnati.
Teammates staunchly defend Mario Williams anonymously, too. While some are skeptical about Ryan’s scheme publicly, others are downright furious privately. One player said he completely understands Williams’ seasonlong frustration because the simple, straightforward, attacking defense employed by 2014 coordinator Jim Schwartz was so effective.
Under Schwartz in 2014, the Bills racked up 54 sacks and opposing quarterbacks had a 74.5 rating. Under Ryan in 2015, they have 20 sacks and quarterbacks have an 86.0 rating.
It's been night and day.
Many players here preferred Schwartz's mano-a-mano approach up front. Playing a “Wide 9” technique — rushing off the edge — the 6-foot-6, 292-pound Williams was a force. Now? Simulated pressure, confusion, hiding your intentions pre-snap is the emphasis and he's mostly just taking up space.
An illness and a hand injury have limited Williams of late in practice. He hopes playing on would be a sign to all he has not checked out.
“I could just literally not be out there,” Williams said. “But I think the biggest thing is when I get my opportunity, do it. Everybody who said that, they’ll see.”
Ryan. Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. Coaches have supported Williams all season long — possibly to a fault. Their message has never wavered.
Dunbar, all smiles, praised the veteran on Thursday.
Asked how one of this generation’s best pass rushers can last 54 snaps without one tackle, one hit, one sack, Dunbar reiterated they're pleased with Williams' play.
“He’s doing a good job of coming off the edge and the quarterback’s getting rid of the ball,” Dunbar said. “It’s kind of hard because the defense we play is predicated on what they give us and who’s going to be the hot guy. Yeah, you wish you had more tackles, you wish you had more sacks. But I think he’s helping our defense based upon the things he’s doing.”
Dunbar cited linebacker Manny Lawson’s hit on Dallas’ Kellen Moore — the team’s only registered QB hit in the game — as one such play. Williams covered tight end James Hanna out of the backfield, eliminating the hot read and Moore was walloped.
The coach asserts Williams “has been around the quarterback” and didn't hesitate on if Williams has been giving his all.
“Yeah, I think so,” Dunbar said. “He’s out there doing the things we’ve asked him to do. … It’s a little bit different than what he’s done in the past, but I think it’s working for us.”
And Dunbar does view Williams as a fit in Buffalo’s defense, even when the player himself puts the scheme on trial.
“As a D-Line coach in that room," Dunbar said, "hell, he fits because of what he has."
Apparently not for long.
Barring a drastic change of events, Sunday will be Williams’ final game with the Bills. There were moments of sheer greatness. His sack/safety of Aaron Rodgers in a 2014 upset win against Green Bay rocked Ralph Wilson Stadium. This looked like a Super Bowl defense in the making. Now? Williams' Bills career is limping to the finish line. A group on the verge of breaking out fell far, far short of expectations.
Four minutes into this conversation, Williams pulls out his cell phone. Taps away. He grabs a sandwich from his locker and takes a few bites.
Was it scheme? Checking out? Age? There is no consensus in the building. Soon, Williams will be an ex-Bill. A free agent again.
And the rest of the NFL must decide what the issue was for Williams in 2015.
“I think that’s their call,” Williams said. “I can’t really say. This is the NFL. A lot of things happen. It’s just a matter of people believing in you, certain situations and things like that.
“There’s nothing you can really do to change that.”