Cut that meat! Cut
Manning isn't here to reprise his commercial catchphrase, but how cool would it
be if the Indianapolis Colts All-Pro quarterback were with us now: dining on a
pleasant summer night with a man being paid millions to get in Manning's grill.
Clogging arteries, Brazilian style, with Mario Williams at Fogo de Ch�o, a
trendy Houston churrascaria. Watching in gluttonous wonderment as chefs in
white linen descend with sharp knives and giant sides of alcatra (top sirloin),
fraldinha (bottom sirloin), costela de porco (pork ribs), frango (chicken) and
cordeiro (leg of lamb). It's this last dish, hot and fresh, sliced off the
bone, that inspires Williams, the 21-year-old quarterback terrorizer whom the
Houston Texans made the No. 1 pick of the 2006 NFL draft, to yield to the
restaurant's all-you-can-eat temptations, over and over.
So yes, in more
polite terms, Williams keeps telling the cordeiro-toting chef to cut that meat,
filling his 6'7", 294-pound frame like a guy who just got voted off
Survivor. And though Manning isn't there to appreciate the feast, his presence
is felt. For he, if you break it down, is the reason we're here. That Williams,
a virtual unknown coming off his junior year at North Carolina State, is now
property of the Texans--rather than Reggie Bush, Vince Young or Matt Leinart,
the Holy Trinity of draft-eligible college superstars--is largely because of
Manning's domination of his AFC South rivals. In their inglorious history the
Texans have never defeated Indy, losing eight games by an average margin of
"If all I was
interested in was selling tickets, the first pick would have been Vince
Young," Texans owner Bob McNair says of the Houston native who
quarterbacked the Texas Longhorns to the 2005 national title. "And our fans
would've been thrilled with Reggie Bush. But here's how I look at it: For us to
get to the playoffs, we've got to beat Indy. The only way to beat Indy is to
put pressure on Manning. If not, he's going to make you chopped liver. Well,
Mario will put pressure on Peyton. Ask yourself, with Reggie Bush, would our
offense be better than [the Colts'] offense? I'd say no, which means we've got
to figure out how to get after Manning defensively."
If McNair and
others in his organization seem a bit defensive, they have good reason. Seldom,
if ever, has a decision on a No. 1 overall NFL pick been so disparaged. And
we're not referring just to talking heads with dorky hairdos or agents with a
stake in the outcome. As Houston announced its selection on April 29, both New
York City's Radio City Music Hall, where Williams strode to the podium to be
the first to shake hands with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and Reliant
Stadium, where hundreds of Texans fans gathered on the club level to watch the
proceedings, echoed with boos. At draft headquarters in Manhattan, the initial
jeers were followed by chants of "overrated"--surreal from Williams's
perspective, considering that six months earlier he'd been a frustrated player
on an underachieving team who didn't even consider himself a prospective No.
laughed if you'd told me I'd go first," Williams says as he gestures for
more lamb. "Even at the end it was a shock. I know there's been a lot of
talk that it was the wrong move, and I use it all as motivation. I think about
that stuff all the time."
On his first day
of work, Williams, like anybody thrust into an unfamiliar situation, made
conversation by talking about the weather. Only this new employee, having just
completed his first training camp practice at the Texans' facility across from
Reliant Stadium last Friday, was discussing the stifling Houston heat and
humidity with a horde of reporters more than 20 strong. Beads of sweat pouring
off his forehead, a small blade of grass resting just below his left eye,
Williams sounded like a man who'd grown up at the North Pole rather than in
North Carolina. On a cloudy, 90� day with 59% humidity, Williams put up some
staggering numbers: 12 mentions of the temperature in the first 13 questions.
"And," he conceded at one point, "it's not even as hot as it's
probably going to be."
challenge is to take the heat off the Texans' brass and attempt to justify his
unlikely status. All he has to do is be very good, very quickly--and, perhaps
equally important, be better than Bush, who went No. 2 overall to the New
Orleans Saints. Before being sidelined in June after surgery to remove the
smashed nails on both big toes (he had recurring infections from being stepped
on), Williams made his presence felt during Houston's off-season workouts and
minicamps, routinely showing up at 5:30 a.m. and logging eight-hour days. On
the practice field he impressed teammates and coaches with his instincts,
ferocity and versatility. He'll have to do much more than that, starting now:
The Texans, who are switching to a 4--3 defense, are loaded with speed and
potential on the line; they view Williams as the player who can spur the
transformation of a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last season and blew
six second-half leads. "He was knocking some guys into the backfield,"
said new Texans coach Gary Kubiak after watching Williams last Friday. "If
you run the ball his way, there is a lot of havoc going on over there, a lot of
guys going backwards, and that's what he's here for."
This being the
21st century, plenty of self-proclaimed experts have already decreed that
Williams won't be up to the task, that he'll be the NFL's version of Sam Bowie,
the player taken just before Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft. The skeptics
contend that Williams is a workout warrior who disappears for long stretches.
They offer this criticism, of course, from the security of their cubicles and
PDAs. "Nobody says anything to my face," notes Williams, spreading his
massive arms, as if to add, Who'd want to mess with these? "Everyone I see
is like, 'Congratulations.'"
especially true once the city of Houston's collective guilt kicked in. It began
in early June at a fan-appreciation gathering in Reliant Stadium, where
Williams got a 30-second standing ovation from thousands of season-ticket
holders and sponsors after being introduced by Kubiak. Two nights later nearly
400 local business and community leaders, including Houston mayor Bill White,
attended a reception at which Williams was presented with a white Stetson hat
and a gavel. "I already see the sentiment changing," McNair said
shortly after the reception. "We've had five people--five, not five
thousand--who actually canceled their season tickets after the draft. I tell
everyone else, 'When you see Mario play, you'll understand.'"