Any time a player signs a big contract – in any sport, any city, any circumstance - they will be scrutinized more closely.
So when Mario Williams got off to a rough start in 2012, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that question marks began popping up about whether it might have been a mistake for the Bills to shell out $100 million (which really isn't $100 because only half is guaranteed, but whatever.)
It wasn't wrong to wonder if he'd be a bust, especially after his post-game press conference in Week 1 where he blamed replacement referees for his poor performance.
But if you're still hanging on to the 2012 critiques of Mario Williams, you're out of your mind. Through half of 2013, Williams is a candidate for Defensive MVP.
What the stats say...
If not for a 4.5 sack day against the Carolina Panthers and a two sack performance against Miami, the Bills wouldn't be sitting at 3-4, they'd be 1-6.
Those two games, which featured late-game sacks, are likely the reason Williams is ranked No. 1 in the NFL amongst defensive ends in AdvancedNFLstats.com 's Win Probability Added. The stat weighs plays that a player is involved with and how much closer those plays get the team to winning.
Statistically, the Carolina and Miami games are his runaway best in terms of WPA. Last week, his WPA was +0.61, the highest of any Bills defender. In week two, his WPA was +0.25. The next highest WPA for Williams was +0.18 against Cleveland, a game in which he had two sacks.
That doesn't mean he was ineffective in the other games, just not the Bills' most valuable defensive player. But being the Defensive MVP of 3 of 7 games is pretty impressive.
Also from the Impressive Statistics category, Williams is No. 1 in the NFL in yards lost via the sack with 61. He is seventh in the NFL in QB Hits with 11, trailing five different ends by just one.
And this comes via Pro Football Focus: Most QB disruptions on the year belongs to Tamba Hali (54). 2nd is Justin Houston (44) & 3rd Robert Quinn/ Mario Williams (38)
Many of those disruptions presumably came from his outstanding three games. Of course, three games does not an MVP make. But the idea that he has only had a few good games is a misconception.
In the other four games, he has a combined 1.5 sacks (a 6.0 sack pace over 16 games) and a WPA of +0.19 (a pace of +0.76). His four worst games would have ranked him 47th in the NFL in sacks and 36th in WPA among D-ends last season. In other words, on his worst day, he's been as good as most teams' second best pass rusher.
The “disruption” factor...
Williams' 4.5 sack game caught the attention of the NFL. Last season, it was noted that teams weren't being forced to double team the Bills' D-end because, more or less, his play wasn't forcing them to do so. This article from the Baltimore Sun quotes both offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and tackle Bryant McKinnie discussing Williams as a factor.
In terms of disruption, the Bills' new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has taken full advantage of Williams' ability to push his man backward on a bull rush - something the previous coaching staff entirely failed to do.
Here are two examples in games where he did not register a sack.
Against Baltimore, Pettine brings corner Nickell Robey on a blitz, while Williams rushes outside. The result is forcing quarterback Joe Flacco out of the pocket. He eventually throws the ball away.
On this play, TV viewers might see Robey chasing. The statistics might say nothing happened. But something happened. Williams' overpowering rush was a big part of the success of the play.
Here's another example of Williams' disruptiveness, on a four-man rush. Williams (far right) beats his man to the outside, forcing Tom Brady to step up in the pocket. Brady throws a poor pass, in part because Alan Branch crushes him immediately after releasing the ball. Again, there's no statistical way to measure a simple step up in the pocket, but the successful pressure from the outside caused a poor throw and a big hit on the QB.
But if Mario's so good, why isn't the defense?
It's a misconception that the Bills' defense has played poorly. The points-per-game and yards-per-game stats can be deceiving. In terms of total defensive WPA, the Bills rank 5th according to AdvancedNFLstats.com. Football Outsiders has Buffalo as the 6th best defense in the NFL.
These statistics take things into account that total yards and points allowed do not, such as quality of opponents, strength of schedule, yards per play, score and situation etc.
Why isn't he as good as Bruce?
First, is Bernie Williams still good at being an outfielder if he isn't Babe Ruth?
Bruce Smith is one of the most dominating players in NFL history. Williams can still be a great player – even MVP worthy – without being one of the best to ever put his hand on the ground.
Also, Bruce played a different role. Williams is a pure pass rusher. He has one job and that's to pin his ears back, so to speak, and run at the QB. Smith was an all-around defensive end, more likened to J.J. Watt, who dominates the run and pass game.
Williams has only 13 tackles and a Tackle Factor that ranks him 54th amongst DE's. Smith had over 100 (!!) tackles twice during his career. The most tackles Mario has ever had in a season is 44. That may be an explanation for why it appeared as if Smith was controlling the entire game, while it looks like Williams disappears at times.
Part of those tackle numbers and his overall usage is caused by the changes in the NFL. Teams are passing more than they did when Bruce was at his best. Pass attempts have gone up from 29.9 per game in 1992 to 36.1 per game this season.
One other aspect of pass rushing where Smith was better than Williams was deflecting passes and getting his hands up while QB's were preparing to throw. The NFL's current No. 2 sacker rarely has his hand in a throwing lane, in part because he often rushes to the outside. Williams has zero pass deflections this year and only 14 during his entire career. J.J. Watt had 16 last year alone.
But he takes plays off...
In hockey, they say certain players take shifts off, in baseball they say players give away at-bats, in basketball players forget there are three quarters...there's a cliché for every sport that could also be called “being neutralized.” That's not to say every pro athlete goes hard on every play, but often we mistake not succeeding for not trying.
In watching nearly every pass thrown in the Bills' loss to New England, it was clear that the Patriots had a plan to get the ball out quickly. The Jets did the same. Carolina struggled to get the ball out of Cam Newton's hands fast. And low and behold, the games in which the QB threw quicker were the games that Williams “didn't show up.”
Again, there have been times this season where Williams' ineffectiveness has appeared like a case of lollygagging – so it's not to say he never has taken a play off – but most often when he failed to disrupt a play, it was because the opponent threw quickly or he was blocked well.
*This note comes via Twitter from pal @ChrisTrapasso (follow him!): Jared Allen has had 10 0-sack games since 2012. Mario has 11*
Can he win MVP?
If there is one factor that takes away from his MVP chances other than the Bills likely missing the playoffs (which should not be a thing, but it usually is) it's the fact that Williams does not stop the run game like some other top DE's and pass-rushing LB's.
It's also pretty unlikely that he racks up another 4+ sack game in the second half of the season.
But if Williams continues to make big plays at big times like he did against Carolina and Miami and cause play-to-play disruptions as he has the rest of the year, there's a chance he could be in the running for Defensive MVP.