On March 15, everything changed for NFL fans in Buffalo.
The Buffalo Bills, long considered an also-ran thanks to an NFL-high 13-year playoff drought, made the single biggest splash in free agency this year by inking former Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year, $96 million deal (via http://wgr550.com).
The significance of the acquisition was twofold: to shore up what was one of the league's most impotent pass rushes in 2011 and to let the long-suffering Bills fans know that the front office is serious about winning.
The latter point cannot be overstated.
For years the Bills have been content to add overrated or unheralded stopgaps—Dwan Edwards, Marcus Stroud and Terrell Owens spring to mind—instead of legitimate, long-term solutions. In one fell swoop, GM Buddy Nix changed the blueprint and vaulted Buffalo's defensive line into any discussion of the NFL's best.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Nix spoke both of the uncertainty of the wooing process and the necessity of inking a deal:
"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."
Williams will join a revamped four-man defensive line that includes stalwart Kyle Williams, impressive second-year man Marcell Dareus and—in another coup for Buffalo—New England's sack leader from last year, DE Mark Anderson.
On paper, it's the best defensive front the Bills have boasted since Pat Williams and Ted Washington lined up alongside one another.
But it's about more than a schematic fit
It's also about having a defensive anchor—a unit that makes all others better just by existing. A unit that will give Buffalo a mental edge when it lines up opposite either Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow on September 9.
As important as Williams' signing has been for both organizational morale and the psyche of the Buffalo faithful has been the proud willingness shown by one member of the Bills offense to put the team on his back.
The sixth-year man out of Coe College, Fred Jackson has been both heart and soul of the team since his emergence in 2009.
A beacon of humility and a testament to what heights can be scaled through hard work, Jackson has ingratiated himself to the Bills fanbase as much by his attitude as by his ability to make defenders feel foolish for having ever tried to tackle him.
Even before being rewarded with a two-year, $9 million deal (via espn.com) this May, Jackson was all business during an interview with a Buffalo radio station (via http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com):
“It’s not a concern at all for me,” Jackson said, via Paul Hamilton of WGR 550 Radio. “I’m going to continue to show up and be with my teammates and that’s what I’m doing, showing up and trying to get ready for the 2012 season. I want something done, but I’m under contract so I’ll continue to work. It’s what I do, I come to work and it’s part of what’s being voted as a captain last year, you have to show up and do things like this, you want everybody to follow the lead that you do so that’s what I’m here doing now.”
Jackson was on pace for a career year in 2012 before being sidelined with a fractured fibula, having amassed 934 yards through 10 games—good for third in the NFL.
As with Mario, though, it's about more than just on-field returns for Jackson.
It's about exemplifying the spirit of Bills who came before them. It's about wanting to be in Buffalo and wanting to be responsible for the team's first playoff game since fan favorite Doug Flutie was at the helm. In a tough AFC, it's going to take a lot for Buffalo to crack the top six and end what's been an embarrassing drought for a once-proud franchise.
Fred Jackson and Mario Williams seem more than up to the task, but it's more than just a 54-man roster with which they'll need to be concerned.
They've got the city on their shoulders.