When Houston Texans’ fans think about the 2011 season and key injures, most immediately turn to the criminal act, er, the questionable actions of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth in breaking Matt Schaub’s foot. Yet, Schaub wasn’t the only one to suffer injuries. Andre Johnson lost significant time to injury, but made it back in time for the franchise’s first playoff run. Other players had their ailments, but rare is the team that can get though a season unscathed.
Yet, there was another injury that season, one that came much earlier in the year, before that fateful game in Tampa Bay. Game 5, the then 3-1 Texans host the Oakland Raiders, playing their first game since the passing of Al Davis.
First quarter, 4:46 on the clock. The Texans, up 7-0, just threw an interception to the Oakland Raiders, and now face the Raiders on the Texans’ 35 yard line. Campbell drops back to pass, only to face pressure from the Texans Defense. DE/OLB Mario Williams leads the charge, logging an arm-tackle sack of a scrambling Campbell for a 1 yard loss. Unfortunately, Williams injured his pectoral muscle and left the game after one more play. The Raiders later scored on the drive, and later won the game 25-20. Williams received confirmation that he tore his pectoral muscle, and with it, played his down as a Texans, leaving in free agency in the off-season.
Up to that point, Williams could lay claim as the focal point of the Texans’ defense. While he showed at times that he was worthy of the #1 overall pick for the team (Second Team All-Pro in 2007, his one-man wrecking crew act in Monday Night against Denver in 2008, double digit sack numbers in 2009), he hadn’t yet consistently emerged into the stratosphere of dominating defensive linemen, in part due to the team’s overall defensive deficiencies and injury concerns.
Coming into 2011, the team faced many questions about its defense, and how Williams would fit into that defense. When the franchise brought in Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator, it augured good news. While Phillips couldn’t get the Dallas Cowboys to the Super Bowl as head coach, Phillips’ track record on defense was one of the best in the business. To that point, every team that employed him as defensive coordinator, from Philadelphia to Denver to Buffalo to Dallas, made the playoffs that first season. For Houston, that would be a desired outcome.
However, Phillips ran a base 3-4 defensive base scheme, and Mario Williams always played in a 4-3 base at DE. The prevailing thought was that Williams might struggle to adjust to a 3-4. He did not have the typical frame for a 3-4 DL player. Some voiced concerns about Williams moving to a pass-rushing OLB spot, which required rushing the passer from a two-point stance, something he had never done on a consistent basis, in college or the NFL.
Still, there existed optimism. Wade Phillips took to comparing Williams to a former charge: DeMarcus Ware. Ware came out of college as a DE, but transitioned to a 3-4 pass-rushing OLB, to devastating effect, While Williams spent more time as a traditional 4-3 DE, Phillips felt confident that Williams could make the transition just as well as Ware.
The move yielded immediate results. Williams started his first game as a 3-4 OLB strong, notching 2.0 sacks in a beatdown of the hated, if weakened, Indianapolis Colts. He would go the next two games without a registered sack, overcoming a second-half injury scare at New Orleans. Then the squad hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the biggest game of the season to that point. In a hard-fought 17-10 defensive slugfest, Williams logged 2.0 more sacks to bring his total up to 4.0. With the sack of Campbell, he made it 5.0 sacks in five games. Of note, Williams would alternate between a stand-up OLB and a DE depending on the defensive packages on the field. His two sacks against Pittsburgh came while he was in a three-point stance. Still, the Phillips’ flexibility would likely continue to benefit Williams if...
What if Williams didn’t get injured?
Injuries are a fickle thing. On any given play, something routine for one can result in a career altering injury for another. A football What If? multi-volume set could be written just on injuries. Yet, for the Texans’ defense, the defensive squad performed fairly well without Williams as lead pass rusher. The emergence of players like Conner Barwin, along with defensive rookies Brooks Reed and the team’s top draft pick in 2011, JJ Watt picked up the slack, helping the Texans move into the top ranks of NFL defenses. Especially with breakout postseason Watt had, you could be forgiven for asking “Mario who?” With plenty of effective, and cheaper, defensive options on the squad, Williams entered free agency and found a home in Buffalo, returning to his comfort zone of 4-3 DE, culminating with a Second Team All-Pro in 2013 and 1st All-Pro in 2014.
Still, it is interesting to imagine what would’ve happened if Williams didn’t get hurt. An aggressive scheme like Phillips’ lent itself to multiple pass-rushers emerging as threats. It is likely that Barwin, Reed and Watt get theirs. Yet, if Williams, who appeared on the verge of a monster season with Phillips, remained healthy, does that all stay the same? If we hold that no other variables change (i.e. that the Texans’ quarterbacks still suffer the ill-fated injury-curses that 2011 yielded), then it is likely that the Texans’ season still ends at the Divisional Round. However, Williams remained on track for a career season. Rough calculations for a full season based on Williams’ 2011 season at the time injury yield the following:
- 16.0 sacks/35.0 solo tackles/13 TFLs/22 QB hits/3.0 passes defended/four FFs
Ultimately, Terrell Suggs earned DPOY honors with the following:
- 14.0 sack/50.0 solo tackles/20 TFLs/23 QB hits/6.0 passes defended/7.5 FFs/two INT
Maybe Suggs still wins out on numbers and that the Ravens (presuming no other parts of the timeline change) still finish above the Texans. Granted, the 2011 DPOY category was quite a strong one, as Vikings DE Jared Allen also logged 22.0 sacks. Yet, given the Texans’ record, and Williams having a career year, you’d figure that he would be a strong favorite to finish highly in DPOY voting.
Additionally, if Williams so excelled in the Philips defense in 2011, and say it yielded such accolades as DPOY, would the Texans let him walk? Houston didn’t always shell out huge money for its own free agents, and Williams could expect to command a very high price tag. Maybe Williams will end up in Buffalo regardless. Still, if Phillips felt that Williams was turning into the next Ware, Houston may decide to go for it, paying the big money to keep Williams around.
Would this stunt the growth of others, particularly JJ Watt? Possible. Or, it is entirely possible that Watt does emerge into a defensive force, but his breakout game comes later in his young career, just not in the 2011 playoffs. Maybe it is Williams that logs that huge pick-6 against the Bengals that turns him from good player into Houston legend. Or perhaps Houston finds itself with a pair of generational pass rushing talents in Watt and Williams, elevating the Houston Texans’ defense into elite company. Perhaps with both of those defensive stalwarts, the team can avoid completely falling to 2-14 in 2013.
Yet, without the subsequent upgrades at the QB position, the team never gets to the promised land of the Super Bowl. Maybe the 2012 team, with both Williams and Watt at full pass rushing power, could’ve yet keep the team from falling from 1 to 3, but even the hottest of pass rushes in the playoffs still needs the concurrent QB play. and Schaub in the later stages of the 2012 season did not offer that. Eventually, Williams’ role as dominant pass rush specialist gives way to the emerging force that is Watt. Even if Williams signed the second contract with Houston, it is unlikely he would’ve signed a third.
Still, even if Watt achieves his multiple 18-20 sack seasons, many will look upon Williams’ 2011 season as one of the best in team history, especially if Williams’ follows a Ware-type trajectory under Phillips. Maybe it is he that becomes the Texans’ greatest pass rusher, and all the associated accolades that come with the title. Alas, Williams got injured and Watt emerged as the top defensive force. Still no Super Bowl, but perhaps Texans fans would have legitimate arguments about the best defender...Watt, or Williams?
Will Anderson, Jr already must walk into a building set to elevate JJ Watt to Ring of Honor status. Now imagine that he would need to not only follow in JJ Watt’s shoes, but would need to consider Mario Williams as well? Perhaps if Williams did manage to play a full 2011 season, and stay in Houston, the 2023 Texans could add not one, but two dominant defensive linemen to the Ring of Honor for 2023.