One of the truisms that I think gets shoved down the throat of football fans is the myth of the importance of one player. Other than the quarterback position, there isn't a single player on the field that can completely change a game, completely turn an offense around, or swing a unit in one direction or another. Everyone else is only as good as they can be in the role you give them, and they certainly alone can't be held accountable for the performance of a unit.
But because of the culture of the NFL, you hear year-after-year about difference makers. A team finds a perfect fit at a position that has needed fixing for awhile, and suddenly that guy is the savior. If you want to take this logical thought experiment to it's Texans-based conclusion, lets call said player Bernard P....no, too obvious, how about B. Pollard? Yes, so this B.Pollard comes in one year and is suddenly thought of as a crucial piece of a young defense that's on the rise. But in reality, all he did was be the right piece at the right time. Suddenly, the needs around him on the team changed, and in 2010 Pollard was no longer fixing the same hole for the same purpose. Instead of being a key player, he became a liability in coverage.
I bring this up not to harp on Pollard, who handled himself with class and dignity in Houston and who I have nothing bad to say about, but instead to bring up the point that the storyline didn't follow the results. The players who were already in place were given no credit for doing the same good job they'd always been doing. Thus, Mario Williams' 2009 season, where he managed 9 sacks and became one of the best run-defending defensive ends in the game after years of being mediocre at it, was swept under the rug. While he was playing with one arm for just about the entire season, no less.
If ever there were a star born into the wrong set of circumstances, it would be Williams. Thrust into a draft pool with a reigning Heisman Trophy winner who was thought to be the next game-changing NFL running back and the local QB who led the University of Texas to it's first NCAA title in 35 years, Williams was the surprise first pick. The payoff of a brutal 2-14 season wasn't the marquee stars, it was this defensive end from North Carolina State. He was placed on a defense that, asides from the draft picks of 2006, has just two players still starting in the NFL only five years later: Dunta Robinson and Jason Babin. Heading into his sixth year in the NFL next season, he is on his third defensive coordinator.
So yes, the defenses that he's been on have been awful outside of 2009, and since he wasn't the Difference Maker of that season, his contributions were undercut. Most fans were against the pick from the start--I won't name names, but I'm pretty sure I was one of them. He happened to be drafted into a town where the big shot newspaper columnist was a president of the Vince Young Fan Club--again, I won't name names--that has had an active agenda against him.
Despite the fact that Williams has outperformed and outproduced both of the bigger names he had been pitted against from Day One, his team continues to not make the playoffs. He continues to be part of a terrible overall unit. One that he has no real control over. And despite near-total acclaim from the national audience, which will admit that he was the right pick only hastily before they get back to talking about more interesting teams or why the Texans haven't made the playoffs yet, he continues to have a segment of local fans who just absolutely dislike him for things beyond his control. You can usually find them in the Houston Chronicle comments section, but sometimes they make it to the big page. Case in point, today's AFC South mailbag by Paul Kuharsky:
Pete Timm from Houston writes: You are either blind, haven't watched must football in the two years or are just plain stupid. Ranking Mario Williams over Clay Matthews for rushing the QB. Mario gets most of his sacks against sub-.500 teams and is NEVER doubled cause he sucks. Lost all respect for your NFL opinion.
I probably wouldn't take Williams over Matthews today either as a pure pass rusher. But the rest of that argument is the classic criticism of Williams: he only plays good against bad teams, he doesn't deal with double teams, he takes plays off, and his unit sucks so it's obvious that he must suck.
The truth about Williams is hidden somewhere between the commonly accepted party lines. He's absolutely not a bulletproof superstar at this point. I love that he's been willing to gut out so much for the team, but the fact that he's been injured two seasons in a row is very disconcerting. I do think the amount of double teams that he's seen over the years has been on the decline. I'm also not totally thrilled with the idea of making him a 3-4 defensive end, and a little scared that this change will ruin his pass-rushing value.
On the other hand, the Williams Can't Win crowd is focused on a lot of ways for interpreting his value that just don't hold up with facts. Mario Williams didn't hire two straight incompetent defensive coordinators who had no credentials that showed they could handle the job. Mario Williams didn't decide to go into the year without a proper nose tackle or free safety for ten straight seasons. Mario Williams didn't decline to chase big-name free agents, or any free agents who weren't training camp refugees in some years. Mario Williams didn't make the team start Kareem Jackson as a rookie. Mario Williams didn't make Amobi Okoye, Brian Cushing, Fred Bennett, Pollard, Zac Diles, Jacques Reeves, and others regress after strong starts to their Texans careers. All he's done is be a rock for the defense while everything else that could go wrong, did. Starting 77 straight games and racking up 48 sacks.
But he will never be the Difference Maker in Houston, because no matter how good the defense gets from this point on, he was always the block that was there to begin with. And for that, he deserves just as much respect as Andre Johnson gets.
He won't get it.
But something tells me he's used to that by now.