All that talk still follows Mario Williams. And if you don't think it hasn't had an effect on him? Read on:
Super Mario's World
December 4, 2008
By Michael A. Lutz, HoustonTexans.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this article appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Dec. 1, 2008, for Houston’s home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday Night Football.
The controversy surrounding the 2006 NFL Draft is hardly a footnote in the emerging legend of hugely talented Texans defensive end Mario Williams. For that reason, it’s worth mentioning, since it once was the story. Today, it is merely a reference point for how far Williams has come from what could have been a disaster for both player and franchise.
When Williams stepped before the national television cameras last December and played the best game of his career against the Denver Broncos, he silenced any remaining doubt that the Texans made the right choice in selecting him with the first pick of the 2006 draft instead of Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner, or Vince Young, the immensely popular hometown hero.
Williams got another look-see from a national audience as the Texans hosted their first-ever appearance on Monday night television in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars earlier this week. In like fashion to last year’s Thursday night performance, Williams had another statement game with three sacks and a forced fumble in a 30-17 Texans win.
Now that Williams – a player who Texans defensive line coach Jethro Franklin says could become among the greatest to play the position – is among the NFL’s rising superstars, the Bush/Young discussions hardly seem pertinent.
Except for the effect it had on Williams, who is an intelligent and friendly sort if you can get him cornered. He is not rude. He’s just bored by repetitive questions and by the fickle nature of alleged supporters. If he is skittish about opening up to the media, he has his reasons.
Fans awed by Williams’ athleticism in games should witness some of his moves to avoid interviews. In a recent walking chat that ended in the players’ parking lot, Williams got the question: Is he just a private person who prefers not talking?
Williams laughed, shook his head and gave a look that said, “Do I really have to answer this?”
“I do talk and I will, but a lot of times, I think it’s because of what happened when I first got here,” Williams said. “You can talk all you want, but at the end of the day, it will go only so far in some people’s minds. It can be good for this person and bad for that person.
“I experienced it firsthand with all the stuff that was said about me when I first got here. That’s why I look at it like that, going out and talking. It’s just talking. You can say a million different things, but at the end of the day, it’s all about who hears it and how they hear it.”
In other words, Williams quickly realized he wasn’t going to talk his way into the hearts of Texans fans. He decided to play his way in instead. What a smashing success that strategy has been.
Williams is the Texans’ career leader with 29.5 sacks in just two-plus seasons. He shattered the team single-season record last season with 14.0 sacks, which ranked third among NFL defensive players, and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. This season, he has dumped quarterbacks 11 times, more than all other AFC defensive ends.
Any mystery about what Williams is thinking does not extend to Franklin, who knows exactly where his star pupil stands on any issue.
“He’s a rare breed, the rare size, the rare speed,” Franklin said. “He has that rare quality of a defensive lineman with that mentality. He is a special type of player. Those types of players don’t come along all the time. I’m just glad he’s here and he’s playing for the Texans.”
Franklin doesn’t care how Williams communicates off the field as long as he understands where his talent can lead.
“He can accomplish what some of the greats have done at the position,” Franklin said. “That’s all attitude and him believing in himself. The sky is the limit because he has the tools. A lot of them have the tools, but the difference is the ones who have the attitude and do something with it.”
Does Williams realize how much he can accomplish?
“That’s my job as a coach,” Franklin said. “He has so much untapped ability that is beginning to be tapped into. I tell him all the time, he can be as great as he wants to be or he can be just average. I try to take that out of his hands by pushing him all the time and always making him strive to become better and to want more and to be an all-around football player.”
Williams is getting the message.
“I know I have a lot of room for improvement,” Williams said. “Who knows what the limit will be? I’ve just got to take it one day at a time and focus on trying to get better.”
Williams’ first knockout performance on national television, when he had a career-high 3.5 sacks on Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in last year’s 31-13 win, was a big factor in his development and a boost for the Texans.
“It meant a great deal to Mario and to this team,” head coach Gary Kubiak said. “This team hadn’t been put in those situations on Thursday night or Monday night. It was important last year that we rose to the occasion and played well. For a guy like Mario, it kind of reassured everyone in the league how well he’s playing. I think they knew it, but it reassured them.”
Williams won’t say that game was an I-told-you-so moment, just that it came at a good time for the team.
“It was a big game not just for me but for our organization and for Coach Kubiak,” he said. “There was a lot of momentum and enthusiasm, and we just came out and played great. Everything started clicking.”
Kubiak has a feeling that bigger things are yet to come for Williams after the 6-7, 291-pound defensive end racked up three more sacks in primetime this week under the Monday Night lights.
“That was something,” Kubiak said. “He’s a heck of a player, and he’s slowly on his way to becoming a great player. To give you a little insight to where he’s at in his career right now, this kid’s here at 2:00 (Monday afternoon) watching film of his opponent he’s fixing to play. When you start to do that as a player in your career, then you’re ready to take some giant steps. It was a heck of an outing by him.”
Even though Williams had another dominant performance in the national spotlight, he isn’t likely to begin chatting frequently with the media.
“A lot of times in our profession, it’s the same questions,” Williams said. “If you’re winning, it’s, ‘How are you winning? How is it so good? How does it feel?’ If you’re losing, it’s, ‘Why are you guys losing again?’ It’s just the same stuff.”
Not always. Watch a replay of Monday night’s game, and listen to the cheers for No. 90. See how far he’s advanced on the field and in the hearts of the fans.
The 2006 draft debate has not been forgotten in this city, nor should it be—except for in future stories about Mario Williams.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky. Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro sports.