ORCHARD PARK — Normally this kind of column is a cliché: A pro athlete, traded or released, plays his first game against his former team.
It’s an obvious story, though the player invariably and untruthfully calls it “just another game.”
But, come Sunday, when the Bills travel to Houston to meet the Texans, there’s considerably more at stake when defensive end Mario Williams returns “home.”
Buffalo signed Williams as a free agent last March and made him the highest-paid defender in the National Football League, via a $100 million — half of that in the form of a signing bonus — six-year contract.
The addition was hailed as a coup by the defensively-challenged Bills.
But early red flags have grown progressively more crimson.
It was interesting, for instance, that the Texans, given Mario’s pass-rushing reputation, made no effort to sign him, committing instead to 2011 first-round draft choice J.J. Watt, whose numbers in seven games this season (34 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks, 10 deflected passes) are Pro Bowl stuff.
Then, too, there were rumors of vast interest in Williams by other NFL teams, but he only visited Buffalo ... leaving the veracity of those tales of other suitors open to question.
Then, once the season started, Mario’s performance was consistently underwhelming. Through seven games, he has 20 tackles (13 solos, three assists, four for a loss) with 3 1/2 sacks, one forced fumble and one recovery.
And there’s an asterisk.
Williams’ only sacks have been against rookie tackles: 1 1/2 against Cleveland’s Mitchell Schwartz and two versus Arizona’s Bob Massie.
In short, Mario has been, at best, an average NFL defensive end.
And that brings up the final concern.
By way of explaining his lack of production, Mario blamed an aching wrist until the NFL fined the Bills for not putting him on the injury report ... though coach Chan Gailey pointed out Williams participated in every practice and played every game.
Hence, on Wednesday, the media descended on Mario’s refrigerator-bearing locker stall — the only one in the Bills’ dressing quarters so equipped — to quiz him about Sunday’s game.
“I’m very excited to go back and play ... glad to be a part of it and have an opportunity to get on the field,” he said. “It’s going to be great to see old teammates and old friends ... that’s the biggest thing. Whenever you play with somebody for so long, you get the bond and the brothership that you have there. It is going to be great to go back, see the guys and play against them.
“The biggest thing for me is I cannot single out one team (even if) it was the team you were at before. It means more for us to get back on track ... we have nine games left and the biggest thing is to go out and perform.”
The Bills stagger into the game at 3-4, having lost a heartbreaking one-pointer to Tennessee heading into the bye week. Houston, meanwhile, was also off last week, but brings in the AFC’s best record, 6-1.
However, Williams maintains he isn’t bitter at his former team’s success.
“I have mad love for them ... each and every player and coach on that team. There’s no type of bad luck or wishing that on them at all. I hope they do the very best.
“At the end of the day, these are your brothers that you played with for a long time. I definitely do not look at it like ‘Oh man they’re doing good.’ They were always good even when I was there.”
And, in fact, Mario wanted to be. Yesterday he admitted to a Houston TV station he never wanted to leave.
“I would not have even been in a position to hit free agency (but) I did not have a say in that ... there was never an offer made,” he said. “I voiced my opinion on it before. Fans that saw me said ‘Do not leave.’ I said ‘I don’t want to leave.’ That’s just how it is.
“Nothing against whether or not I am here or anywhere else. This was prior to even having the door opened. I never said I wanted out, I never asked them to (leave). I was basically given a one-way door in a quiet manner and I had no other choice.”
He added, “(Fans) just think ‘Oh well he just up and left and that’s the type of guy he is.’ That never happened. The general manager (Rick Smith) makes the decisions. I know the coaching staff was very high on me and I was high on them, obviously. We had six years together. We came in together.”
But now he’s a Bill who had a lackluster start that he hopes a bye-week surgical procedure on his wrist will have corrected.
“I have something extra to prove in general,” Williams admitted. “With everything going on, it’s not been the way I really wanted it ... going out, making an impact and just being better to help the team win.
“It’s just a coincidence it’s this week after the bye (and surgery) and against (my former) team.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)