Free agency: The smart part.
First, the Mario Williams signing was no reprise of the Reggie White free agency bonanza in 1993, the first year of free agency. Though I might argue that Williams is the second-best defensive free agent ever, he's not a fair match to White. When White went from Philadelphia to Green Bay, he was 31 and he'd had 124 sacks in 121 career games. Williams is 27. He's played 82 games -- and had 53 sacks. A nice player, the best pass-rusher by far on the market this year, and one of the best rushers ever on the market. But White? No.
Williams signed a six-year, $96 million deal with the Bills on Friday, but as ProFootballTalk.com pointed out, the deal is really a two-year, $40 million contract -- with a $10.6 million roster bonus set to activate the final four years of the contract, similar to the way the $28 million option bonus would have activated Peyton Manning's final four contracted years with the Colts had they chosen to exercise the option. If Williams plays well in the first two years, Buffalo would almost certainly exercise the roster bonus in 2014. Four years and $56 million for a premier defensive end will be a good investment in two years, and that's what Williams will have left on his deal.
But I thought the most compelling part of this deal was that Williams never left Buffalo once he got there Tuesday night. He never visited Chicago or Seattle or any of the other franchises that wanted him. Certainly part of that is because the Bills paid him through the roof, but Buffalo GM Buddy Nix thought it was something else -- that Williams wasn't looking to be the big star in the big city.
"I'll tell you exactly how it happened,'' Nix told me Saturday. "When you're a rookie, you're bright-eyed, and you're excited, and you've never had this kind of money. Mario went through that before as the No. 1 overall pick in 2006. And he's a country boy who wasn't into the bells and whistles. In fact, he sold me on the plane ride back to Buffalo. He told me, 'I'm not a vocal leader. I'm not gonna make a lot of speeches. I'm not gonna dance before the game. If I come, I'm here to play as hard as I can and to make this team better.' I really liked that.
"The next day, he wanted to see the area. This kid likes open space. We took him to Jim Kelly's home, and Jim and his wife, Jill, have been wonderful to our team over the years. Mario loved it. He wanted country, like what Jim's got -- woods, wildlife, a big lot. When we were leaving Jim's neighborhood, Mario saw a big house with no sign in front of it and said, 'That house is for sale.' I don't know how he knew it, but he did.
"Turns out it was owned by the bank. So Mario said, 'I'd like to have the realtor there tomorrow at 9 in the morning.' I thought that was a good sign. He had his fiancée come in -- it was real important to him that she see everything and she like the area. They see the house the next morning, and they loved it. They made an offer. I think they're going to get it.''
Said Williams: "When I saw Jim's house, and the deer and turkey out there, it felt like really a country, home-type feeling. At least that's home to me. It was really important to me that I see the town, because I didn't know it. I'd never been here before. I like the small-town atmosphere. Plus, I knew Toronto was just a short trip over [the U.S.-Canada border]. New York's close by plane, Boston's close. The cold doesn't bother me. I just wanted to find the right fit for me, and from the beginning, they showed me love.''
I asked him if he traded the chance to win long-term for more money than he'd have been able to make elsewhere.
"If I'm not mistaken,'' Williams said, not angrily but stridently, "this team beat New England last year. This team almost beat the Giants. This is an any-given-Sunday league. I don't buy that we can't win. This is the NFL. New teams win every year. If that wasn't the case, teams in the big cities, the better cities, would win all the time. And you see that's not true.''
It didn't hurt that it was 70 degrees and sunny when his fiancée came in and they toured the city. "Almost like it was destined that he come here,'' said Nix. "A couple times during the process I thought, Why'd we get into this? The downside was huge. If we lose him, I don't know how long it'd take for our fans to recover. They wanted him so bad. But you know, you've got to step up to the plate to have a chance to get a hit. Buffalo's got an inferiority complex. That's why it was so important we get Mario.''
Now it's up to defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt to put Williams in position to get to the quarterback. The Bills will play a 4-3, with Williams at left end and two disruptive tackles, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, as part of a tackle rotation beside Williams. The right end could be Chris Kelsay or a newbie from the draft.
"We're going to put him on the left side and turn him loose,'' said Wannstedt. "You can see now in this league how important it is to get to the quarterback. Look at Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. A quarterback starts throwing on rhythm and he'll destroy you. But the Giants kept disrupting him -- not necessarily sacking him all the time, but just getting in his face and not allowing him to get into rhythm. When a quarterback knows what's coming and where it's coming from, the defense is in trouble.''
Reminds me what Texans owner Bob McNair said to me before the '06 draft -- Houston was drafting Williams over Reggie Bush and Vince Young because there was no way they could consistently beat Indianapolis without pressuring Peyton Manning. Nix knows Buffalo won't challenge the Patriots without getting in Brady's face and forcing turnovers and/or incompletions. The difference here may be that Kyle Williams and Dareus both have Pro Bowl potential (Williams has made it twice) and could prevent the consistent double teams Super Mario might see without interior help from his teammates.
Maybe Williams will be in a sinkhole. But I think if the interior defensive line stays healthy, Buffalo finally has a chance to be competitive enough on defense to play good offenses head-to-head.
In the immortal words of Vince Lombardi (sort of), "What the hell's going on down there?!"
In Miami, I mean.
In the last 10 years this franchise has been the most luckless, clueless, hapless club. To wit:
Head coaches (seven): Dave Wannstedt, Jim Bates, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, Tony Sparano, Todd Bowles and now Joe Philbin.
Starting quarterbacks, minimum four starts (13): Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Daunte Culpepper, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon(!), Trent Green, John Beck, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne and now, evidently, Matt Moore. Unless they sign Alex Smith this morning, and if so, Smith would be in line to be the 14th starting quarterback in the last 11 seasons.
Offensive coordinators (seven): Norv Turner, Chris Foerster, Scott Linehan, Mike Mularkey, Dan Henning, Brian Daboll and now Mike Sherman.
Defensive coordinators (six): Jim Bates, Richard Smith, Dom Capers, Paul Pasqualoni, Mike Nolan and now Kevin Coyle.
The most bizarre moves, and aftermaths, of the last decade of Miami Dolphins football -- actually, decade plus 11 days, considering that the Dolphins traded for Ricky Williams 10 years and 11 days ago:
1. The ridiculous inability to find, develop and decide on a quarterback who could be even half as good as Dan Marino. Miami, in the last 10 years, has traded a seven for Rosenfels, a two for Feeley, a two for Culpepper, a six for Lemon, a five for Green, and used a two to draft Beck and another two to draft Henne. None is on the team anymore. None became a shadow of Marino. And Sunday, when Matt Flynn chose Seattle over Miami as the prize of a thin free agent quarterback crop, it left the Dolphins scrambling and reconsidering how aggressively to go after Alex Smith. Or hope Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M would be there with the eighth pick in the first round on April 26. Or play with Matt Moore. Not very good options.
2. The ill-fated hiring of Nick Saban. He was supposed to turn the Dolphins around, and be the head coach for life, when Wayne Huizenga hired him early in 2005. He went 15-17, made a horrendous quarterback decision (picking Culpepper over Drew Brees in 2006) and skulked off to Alabama after denying 613 times he'd go back to college football.
3. The one you've all forgotten. Two days apart in early 2007, soon after Saban skulked off to Alabama (can't use that phrase enough), Miami interviewed two coordinator prospects -- among others -- to succeed Saban. The Dolphins favored offensive coordinator Cam Cameron of San Diego over Minnesota defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. Cameron got the Miami job. Tomlin got the Pittsburgh job. Cameron went 1-15 and got fired. Tomlin went 10-6, won the AFC North and is 55-25 since, with a Super Bowl win.
4. Trades that stunk. Ricky Williams came in 2002 for two first-round draft picks and gave the Dolphins two terrific seasons -- and five lousy ones, and one-and-a-half suspended ones. Wes Welker was made a restricted free agent in 2007, and the Patriots stole him for second- and seventh-round draft picks. Those two picks turned into one season of center Samson Satele before he was dumped to Oakland for a sixth-rounder the next year. I'd call the Brandon Marshall trade (for two second-rounders in 2010) a debacle, but they did regain two third-rounders this year. They wasted two second-rounders on quarterbacks who barely had cups of coffee in Miami -- Feeley and Culpepper.
5. Drew Brees. Saban chose Culpepper over Brees in March 2006 because Brees was rehabbing major shoulder surgery. Ten months later, Saban skulked off to Alabama, and the 1-15 Dolphins of 2007 played with Lemon, Green and Beck. Funny thing, as I wrote a couple of months ago: On the night Miami had to make the decision which way to go on Brees or Culpepper, owner Wayne Huizenga was out to dinner with a friend and said. "I want them to sign Brees. They want Culpepper.'' Huizenga got a call on his cell phone and walked outside. When he came back inside the restaurant, Huizenga said his football people were insistent that Culpepper, for reasons monetary and football and health, was a better choice than Brees. "I told them, they're the football guys, not me,'' said Huizenga. But the owner repeated that if it were up to him, he'd have signed Brees. Miami is 37-59 since, with no playoff wins.
Clearly, when Huizenga brought in Bill Parcells, who imported Jeff Ireland from the Cowboys, he didn't expect the disastrous personnel run that has ensued. (And the man who bought the Dolphins from Huizenga, Stephen Ross, didn't expect Ireland to ask Dez Bryant the sordid question about his mother's occupation in the run-up to the 2010 draft either.) The Ross-Ireland daily double has failed to lure Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher, and has failed to land Peyton Manning or Matt Flynn either.
When I was talking to Flynn Sunday night about why he chose the Seahawks, he must have repeated three or four times how much he liked the feeling he got from the Seahawks' coaches and front office people when he was in Seattle. He wouldn't say anything negative about Miami; he is very fond of his former offensive coordinator in Green Bay, Philbin. But clearly Flynn felt the love more in Seattle than in Miami.
It's absolutely amazing how much failure the Dolphins have endured in the last 10 years. And the way this year is beginning -- losing out on Fisher, Manning and Flynn -- I'm amazed that Ross is putting up with it without blowing a gasket.
The other day, Browns president Mike Holmgren inferred strongly to his season ticket holders in a conference call that he felt the trade St. Louis made with Washington was influenced by the relationship between the two coaches involved -- good friend Mike Shanahan of the Redskins and Jeff Fisher of the Rams. What Holmgren said: "What we had offered for the pick was every bit the offer that was chosen. There are reasons I can't go into right now why it didn't happen, but there's a very close relationship between the people that were involved in getting the deal done, and the people eventually got it done. I'm not sure if any offer we made at the end of the day was going to be quite good enough."
But according to Rams GM Les Snead, that's not the whole story. He confirmed to me Sunday what I'd heard the night the trade broke. Snead said he told all teams interested on March 8 that he was going to have the trade done by the end of that day, and he was going to ask each team to give its best offer for the trade. At that point, he said, after listening to all the proposals, he was going to take the best offer -- unless the offer was not anywhere near what the Rams wanted for the pick.
Those were the rules, Snead said Sunday, that he made clear to each team. Snead asked for everyone's best offer in individual phone calls. It's unclear what Cleveland's offer was, but Washington offered three first-round picks and one second-round pick. That offer, Snead said, was better than Cleveland's offer. So he told Washington officials that they'd won the bidding and told the Browns they'd lost. At that point, Snead said, Cleveland tried to make another offer, and Snead said the window was closed; the Rams were taking Washington's offer.
Many of you have wondered why Snead did it that way. Wouldn't St. Louis have gotten a better return if it had let two or more teams play off against one another? Possibly. But I can see a scenario that would net a smaller haul. Suppose Cleveland and Washington go back and forth, back and forth. Cleveland, which had been been playing poker and saying it would never give a third first-round pick, finally relents and says, "That's it. We're not adding one ounce of value to the three ones we've offered. That's it.'' Washington hears that and says, "OK, we'll give you three ones and a fifth-round pick.'' Cleveland says fine, the pick's yours.
My point is simple: The Redskins knew the rules of the game -- that they'd have to blow St. Louis out of the water with one of the best trade offers in NFL history. They did. No team had ever bid three first-round picks for a draft choice before, and Washington threw in a second-rounder as well.
Looks like Snead got max value for the pick. And had he gone back on his word to take the best offer from each team by telling the Redskins he was re-opening the game, both teams would know they could never trust Snead in a trade again, and that reputation would spread.
Coming in Tuesday's column (barring a Manning decision or other big news): A one-week review of free agency hits and misses.