In 1992, the Green Bay Packers finished 9-7, completing a 20-year stretch in which they made the playoffs one time (strike shortened 1982, when they finished 5-3-1) and only finished above .500 three times. But in a surprise move the next offseason, they landed the top free agent on the market in the first year of true free agency, defensive end Reggie White, signing him to a then-record 4-year, $17 million deal.
The next season the Packers still finished just 9-7. But thy made the playoffs for the first time in a non-strike year since 1972, starting a string of six consecutive seasons (White’s entire run with the team) and 15 of 19 years in which they would make playoff appearances — a stretch capped by two Super Bowl wins and a third appearance in the big game.
White wasn’t the only catalyst for the run (a certain guy named Favre began his long consecutive games started streak during the third game of the 1992 season). But his signing has generally been credited with being a reason that other free agents would be willing to consider moving to a team that has the smallest media market in the NFL. And the infusion of talent led to success, which has led to more free agents along the way.
Fast forward 20 years, and the Buffalo Bills may be trying to make the same kind of splash with free agent defensive end Mario Williams. The Bills are coming off a 6-10 season where they started strong at 5-2, before losing eight of their last nine games, the seventh straight sub-.500 record and 12th straight season with no playoff appearances.
That just lengthened a run of futility that is approaching the same levels the Packers’ had reached before White arrived in the mid-1990s. They’ve finished .500 just twice since 1999, the last season the team reached double-digit wins. After making the playoffs 9 times in 11 years from 1988 to 1999, they have not seen the postseason since.
Like the Packers, the Bills appear to have some talent on the roster—quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick appeared to be solid during the fast start in 2011, before apparently suffering an undisclosed injury. Running back Fred Jackson was among the best in the league before he got hurt. And Stevie Johnson, despite making some bonehead decisions, appears to have game-breaking potential in the passing game. Add in some solid role players, and the Bills finished 14th overall in offense.
The defense, though, finished 30th in points allowed and 27th in yardage, and has some serious holes — in particular with the pass rush. Only two Bills players recorded more than five sacks in 2012—defensive tackle Marcell Dareus with 5.5 and linebacker Chris Kelsay with 5.0. Adding Mario Williams, who put up 43.5 sacks in the four seasons before suffering a season ending injury in game five last year (when he had already put up five more sacks), could be a difference maker for the Bills, both in terms of on-field performance, and, perhaps more importantly, in terms of showing the rest of the league that the Bills can be serious players in free agency.
Now let’s be fair. Williams is by no means as accomplished as the then 32-year-old Reggie White was when he arrived in Green Bay. White had 124 sacks in eight seasons with the Eagles and he had missed just seven games during that span. Williams, all told, has 53 sacks in six seasons and he has finished the last two on injured reserve.
But the talent and upside is there for Williams to have an impact on the Bills much like the one White had on the Packers. And the similarities between the 1990s Packers and the Buffalo Bills of the 2010s are strikingly similar. According to Bills General Manager Buddy Nix, the Bills hope to make a big splash in free agency and then be done by Friday—but if their one big splash is Mario Williams, that’s a signing that could pay dividends for years to come.