|National Football League|
Mario's arrival raises expectations in Buffalo
By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) Strong and powerful as Mario Williams might be, the defensive end can't bend perception.
It's one thing for Williams to suggest, in deference to his new Buffalo Bills teammates, that he's simply a piece of the puzzle, certainly not a one-man show. What's impossible to overlook is what Williams' celebrated arrival three days into free agency in March did - with the stroke of a pen on the bottom line of a $100 million contract - to immeasurably raise the hopes of a generation of the team's win-starved fans.
So who is Williams to argue in the face of those sky-high expectations, even though he, his teammates and coaches can all appreciate that one player alone and all the money in the world can't turn a perennial loser into a winner overnight.
"I mean, you can't do anything about it. Whenever you're put in this situation, you have to know there's responsibility that comes with it," Williams said. "At the end of the day, we're all smart people. You know, I came here for a reason, and that's to turn this thing around."
Williams is no stranger to being thrust into the spotlight. It happened in 2006, when he was drafted first overall by the Houston Texans, ahead of fan favorite Reggie Bush.
And it's no different in Buffalo, after the NFL's defensive rookie of the year, two-time Pro Bowl selection, and one of the league's premier pass-rushers signed the most expensive contract ever awarded a defensive player.
"At the end of the day, nobody has higher expectations than myself," Williams said, noting he still has plenty to prove after a chest injury ended his season five games into 2011. "Oh yeah, it's never going to stop until I can be that piece of the puzzle for this team."
It's been 12 seasons since the Bills last made the playoffs, the NFL's longest current string of futility. They're coming off a 6-10 finish after injuries and inexperience led the team to unravel, losing eight of its last nine games.
With training camp set to open in suburban Rochester on Thursday, there's a genuine belief across western New York that this represents their best chance in years of breaking that postseason drought.
And Bills fans aren't the only ones excited. The team's alumni have jumped on board, too.
"I haven't been this excited about football in a long time," former linebacker Cornelius Bennett said.
"People have reason to be optimistic again," added former general manager Bill Polian. "It's a tough row to hoe in that division, but they're headed in the right direction."
And no need to remind receiver Andre Reed how long it's been since the Bills last made the playoffs, because the 1999 campaign that ended with the Music City Miracle playoff loss at Tennessee just happened to be his final year in Buffalo.
"I think 12 years is long enough," Reed said. "It's time for this team to take the next step, and it looks like the front office has done that."
Williams is the centerpiece of a revamped defense now being overseen by Dave Wannstedt. Williams will be part of an experienced and talent-laden front four being counted upon to play havoc with opposing passers.
It's a group that includes Kyle Williams and Shawne Merriman, two players coming off season-ending injuries; free-agent newcomer Mark Anderson; and Marcell Dareus, a 2011 first-round pick who had a very promising rookie season.
Together, they're expected to improve a defense that last season allowed a franchise-worst 5,938 yards and managed just 29 sacks - 10 in one game.
There's plenty of optimism about the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense that returns mostly intact. Despite a second-half swoon, the Bills still produced 5,624 yards, their most since 1992, and finished 14th in the NFL in yards, the best ranking since Drew Bledsoe's first season in 2002.
Fitzpatrick is getting help on his mechanics from new quarterbacks coach David Lee. His favorite target is back after the Bills re-signed receiver Stevie Johnson in March.
And then there's the dual backfield threat of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Jackson's back and fully recovered from a season-ending broken leg, while Spiller, the 2010 first-round draft pick, finally showed signs of a spark in finishing the season in place of Jackson.
Add it up, and it's enough to make coach Chan Gailey upbeat.
He can even joke about it after being asked if his team might be quantum leaps ahead from last year.
"I don't know how much quantum is, I'm from south Georgia," Gailey said with a chuckle. "But we're ahead for sure."
The expectations placed on the Bills don't scare Gailey either. In fact, he welcomes them.
"I want expectations to be high not only from without but from within. And they are," Gailey said. "Yes, there are expectations. Yes, everybody's excited. But we haven't proven anything yet. And we've got to go out on the field and prove it."
Updated July 24, 2012