The cameras had turned their attention to other players in the winning locker room when Mario Williams stepped to the side and offered some additional insight. He revealed that his breakthrough performance with the Bills didn’t come Sunday, as it appeared, when all seemed well after he recorded 4½ sacks against the Panthers.
Williams admitted that he had been a tormented man for some time. His problems had gone back a good five years, back to his days in Houston, before he found peace. It would be easy to assume years of bottled up angst poured out in a dramatic 24-23 victory over Carolina, a game in which he broke the franchise record for sacks in a game.
In fact, it started much earlier.
The best game of his career wasn’t a product of unleashed frustration at all. It was a result of untapped freedom he discovered last spring when reporting for organized team activities and experiencing an epiphany of sorts. He looked around the locker room and realized he needed to make a few adjustments.
Enough was enough. He was finished with the drama that had infiltrated his life, infected his career and made him miserable. He was done scowling and copping an attitude and being a standoff. Forget the big contract. Forget the relationship with his fiancée that fell apart. Forget everything and just play football.
Football was the game he enjoyed more than anything going back to his childhood. It led him to a full scholarship at North Carolina State. It led him to becoming the first pick overall in the 2006 draft. It made him wealthy beyond comprehension. The game had always been there for him, but he wasn’t always there for the game.
“It was like Velcro unzipping,” he said. “I was like, ‘Let’s go, let it go and let’s focus.’ It was no stress. Honestly, that was the biggest thing. Anybody, no matter what you’re doing, if you have too much tugging at you, and you allow it to affect you, it’s going to affect you. That’s how I felt. It came from my personal life, and that’s on me.”
Williams certainly let it go Sunday. The guy was a beast against the Panthers, who had no answers for him and few for the Bills’ defense. EJ Manuel was the hero after marching the Bills to the winning touchdown in the final 1:38 with no timeouts. It was a terrific moment for him and rookie head coach Doug Marrone.
The Bills wouldn’t have even been in the game without Williams, who was in Cam Newton’s face all day. He found his way into more pockets than a street beggar. He sacked Newton for a 6-yard loss on the first series and dumped him for a 5-yard loss on the second series. He had three sacks before halftime.
It set the tone for the Bills’ defense.
“The 4½ sacks, to me, that’s gone, but the W is still in the column,” he said. “The W is the most important thing. Players going out there and contributing, however they do, whether it’s numbers or records or whatever. At the end of the year, it’s going to be the W’s and losses that matter.”
Last season, if you remember, Williams had a way of blaming everyone, or everything, but himself for the Bills’ problems on defense. He alienated several teammates who rolled their eyes when talking about him, especially when he failed to justify the big money the team threw his way.
Williams was a big-time player Sunday, but he hardly came off like a big-timer after the game. He showered his teammates with praise, and not just for their play. He made a point to compliment defensive line coach Anthony Weaver for helping him in this self-imposed revitalization project.
“The things I had going on the last five years in my personal life, obviously, have shown their marks,” Williams said. “I’m here, and I’m excited to be here. The guys here have helped me out tremendously. You would be amazed to see the support that I have around me every day. They’re putting me on their shoulders, and I really appreciate it.”
Williams spoke in cryptic tones Sunday, but his message was clear. He’s no longer feeling the weight of issues that made you wonder about the guy’s mental health. He sounded unstable last year after his relationship fell apart with his former fiancée, whom he ended up suing over a $785,000 engagement ring.
The messy breakup set off alarms about his stability, especially after court papers revealed disturbing text messages that suggested he contemplated suicide and was taking high dosages of hydrocodone, a narcotic. The Bills publicly remained quiet, but behind the scenes several in the organization worried about him.
And let’s not forget, of course, that they committed $100 million to him with the idea that he would turn around their defense. He was absent for much of the first half of last season. He played better in the second half and showed flashes of brilliance, but overall he fell well short of a satisfactory return on investment.
“If you have things tugging on you, how that manifests itself, I don’t know,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “Maybe he couldn’t sleep and that spills into practice and that spills into games. It could all be a circular problem. I’m glad that he’s happy where he’s at, and we’re happy to have him.”
The Bills’ defense has played well in the first two weeks. There’s no telling where it can go from here if the defense, particularly the front seven, continues playing the way it did Sunday. Buffalo allowed 308 total yards to Carolina, but a bulk came after they took bad penalties when they were on the verge of getting off the field.
Mario Williams is one of the better pass rushers in the league when he’s at the top of his game, which he confirmed Sunday. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has him coming from different angles in his attack-style defense, which caused problems for the Panthers for much of the afternoon.
Williams was the source of enough problems for the Bills last season. Now, he seems intent on causing problems for everybody else. He was having fun again for the first time in a long time, and it was obvious in his facial expressions after the game. He said the win over Carolina was his favorite game since coming to Buffalo.
Then again, that’s what winning does.
“This,” he said, “is the most peace I’ve had in the last five years.”