Brave move: Texans' decision to draft Williams in 2006 is paying off
Houston Texans picked Mario Williams ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young
Texans never seriously considered Young, who they thought wasn't ready
The Texans' doubts about Bush's durability have panned out
Were the Texans brilliant in the 2006 draft? Or just lucky?
That question is worth pondering as Houston enters the upcoming season believing defensive end Mario Williams could become this year's version of Pittsburgh Steelers star James Harrison. That is, Williams appears on the brink of transforming himself from a hardly-known and rejected commodity, like Harrison was before breaking out in 2007, into an NFL Defensive Player Of The Year-type athlete.
After Williams amassed 26 sacks the past two seasons, earning second-team All Pro honors in 2007 and Pro Bowl status last year, no one could dispel the notion as outrageous.
There is one significant difference between Williams and Harrison, however. Williams was not just hardly-known and rejected. Compared to other No. 1 picks, he was virtually unheard of ... and then despised.
When Williams was drafted No. 1 overall in 2006 out of North Carolina State, much of Houston and the NFL considered his selection an unfathomable mistake. He was jeered in his home stadium, loathed not for what he was, but for what he was not -- Reggie Bush or Vince Young.
"The unfortunate thing for Mario was he didn't pick himself, somebody else did," former Texans general manager Charley Casserly said this month, looking back at the 2006 draft. "He had to take it all and none of it was justified. It was not going to be a popular decision to take him. We knew that."
What the Texans nor anyone could have imagined was the amount of venom and criticism spewed at the 6-foot-7, 285-pound lightning rod. Once the Texans selected Williams instead of the dazzling Heisman Trophy-winning Bush and god-like hometown hero Young, the pick cut deep into the heart of football country. It became personal. Season ticket-holders cancelled. Fans fired off nasty e-mails and calls to Texans owner Bob McNair, coach Gary Kubiak and Casserly.
"I made the statement, 'if you're going to boo somebody, boo me,'" Casserly said. "I said, 'get all over me. Criticize me.' And they did. They listened."
Talk radio sizzled with name-calling. Casserly resigned two weeks after helping new coach Kubiak through his first draft. Local and national opinion-makers used words like "moronic" and "stupid" to describe the Texans' perceived draft blunder for the ages.
Worse, Bush was taken No. 2 overall and immediately contributed for the playoff-bound Saints in 2006. Young, selected No. 3 overall by the Tennessee Titans, was named AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Even if Young's rookie award came almost by default as he put up pedestrian numbers (12 TDs, 13 INTs, 61.7 QB rating), his team won. And Houston fans were unforgiving, especially since Williams struggled as a rookie. He bounced to all four positions along the defensive line and finished with just 4.5 sacks.
The Texans remained steadfast that time would justify their decision. Turns out they were right. In fact, the No. 2 and No. 3 selections may well go down as Dumb and Dumber. Bush is injury-prone and not nearly as effective as during his rookie year. Young is riding the bench, prone for bizarre off-field behavior.
Since his rookie season, Bush has played just 22 games and rushed for 985 yards and six touchdowns. That's less than Texans' 2008 third-round pick Steve Slaton (1,282-yards, nine TDs) had in 2008 alone.
Young was injured, then benched. He never picked up the Titans' offense as he was replaced by Kerry Collins. Young has thrown just 10 touchdowns against 19 interceptions since his rookie season. Last year, he reached a disturbing low, sulking, refusing to re-enter one game and going M.I.A., with police reporting that friends, family and coaches worried about Young's "emotional well-being."
Thus the question again as we look behind the scenes of the '06 draft and Williams approaches 2009 with legitimate lofty expectations: Were the Texans brilliant or just lucky?
Interestingly, the part of the story that cut the deepest among Houston fans -- spurning Young -- never even was an option for the Texans. The team never seriously considered Young.
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