While the labor skirmish drones on, let's focus on one item in Monday's column that brought some email and Twitter chatter: the move of Mario Williams from defensive end in the Texans' former 4-3 defense to a rush outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4.
My whole point Monday was that the move wasn't that revolutionary. If Phillips thinks Williams can drop 20 or so pounds and play the rush spot DeMarcus Ware played with the Cowboys to great success, Phillips deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Many of you, including Ted D. of Katy, Texas, think I'm underrating Williams -- who has averaged 9.6 sacks a year over the past five seasons -- and he shouldn't have to move to a foreign position. Ted writes: "Williams has never played the position. He's been excellent for the Texans at defensive end. Stats don't tell the whole story. I'm just afraid he's not suited to play in space the way Phillips is going to ask him to do.''
Let's examine what the phrase "playing in space'' means. In some 3-4 schemes, the outside linebackers are asked to drop in coverage, but in reality they almost never do. If you watch Phillips' defense in Dallas (and, for that matter, in San Diego before then), the outside linebackers were pretty consistently lined up wide on the line of scrimmage, outside the defensive ends. There's this fear that Williams will be a lost sheep on the four or five snaps a game where (it is presumed, and I believe wrongly) he would have to drop and cover a tight end or back. But Phillips doesn't do that, and I'm sure he's not going to start now with Williams.
I asked my friend Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com, a site that studies tape of every NFL game, what he thought of the move, and to work up some stats on Williams and Ware to see how much each pressured the passer in recent seasons. "To be honest,'' Schatz said, "I don't think Mario Williams as outside linebacker is that crazy. The strongside linebacker [in Phillips' defense] only rarely drops into coverage and the weakside linebacker almost never drops into coverage. Last year, our game charters had Ware in coverage on six passes. That's it. [Antwan] Applewhite, the weakside linebacker in San Diego, was in coverage on just nine. Williams makes more sense there than as a five-technique end.'' The five-technique end has run and rush responsibilities and lines up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle.
According to the numbers crunched by FootballOutsiders.com, Ware got home more than Williams in the past three seasons, but both had good impact disrupting the quarterback. Ware had 47 sacks to Williams' 30, but they had an identical 120 hits and hurries of the passer.
When the Texans were getting ready to draft Williams in 2006, I remember speaking to owner Bob McNair about choosing between Reggie Bush, Vince Young and Williams for the number one pick in the draft. "We've got to play Peyton Manning twice a year, and we've got to make sure we find a way to make it uncomfortable for him when he plays us,'' McNair said then. It takes more than one rusher to make it hard on Manning, to be sure, and the Texans absolutely must play better in the secondary; if I'm McNair, I'm telling Rick Smith he has carte blanche to go after accomplished cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha when the free-agent market opens, because a pass-rush without coverage is not going to be good enough.
But I'm anxious to see Williams make more of an impact than he has. Moving him from hand-in-the-ground defensive end to rangy outside 'backer is not a revolution. It could make him more of a force buzzing around quarterbacks than he's been. Williams is excited about dropping down to 265 or 260 and having a bigger impact at rush linebacker. That's a big reason -- along with new draftees J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed -- for Texans fans to be excited about the new defense.
Now onto your email:
• I THINK IT'LL TAKE HIM AWHILE TO FIND SOMETHING. "The last few offseasons, we have been inundated with the Brett Favre saga. Now that the labor dispute is all over the NFL front page, discussing Favre would be a relief. What are your thoughts on Favre's comments about coaching or commentating?''--Jonathan Borne, Timberville, Va.
I can't see him as a TV guy, though I do think he could do something in tandem with his good friend Steve Mariucci on NFL Network -- maybe a dissection of quarterback play every week or so, which would be interesting to see. I'd love to see Favre and Mariucci take a big play by a quarterback, then diagram it and figure out how it worked and what the quarterback's options were, and what Favre would have been thinking at the time. Ultimately, I could see him as a coach in southern Mississippi, like his dad Ervin was. He loves kids, and he'd be good teaching them.
• THE MARKET FOR NNAMDI. "As always, great column. That said, what are your thoughts on Nnamdi Asomugha? It appears the Eagles are planning on making a big run at him, only drafting one cornerback, in what seem to be the team's most glaring need. I'd appreciate your thoughts, realizing that this bogus lockout is limiting your ability to gather information on player movements.''--Adam, Philadelphia
That last statement is absolutely right. Teams are very, very careful to not tip their hands on free agents, for fear of being wrist-slapped (or worse) by the league. I could see five teams with big wallets going after him: Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Detroit and the Jets -- but the Jets ONLY if there's not going to be a salary cap in 2011. See, that's the difficult thing to forecast. If there's a cap, I can't see the Jets in the running, because paying two cornerbacks a combined $35 million a year (or some such lunatic number) would squeeze too many contributing players off their team. Detroit's probably a dark horse, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Ford family, which has to be as excited about its team as it's been since the prime Barry Sanders days, would authorize a big check for Asomugha.
• FAIR ENOUGH. "While I agree with you that more NFL players should donate their brains to science, I think scientists should do the outreach, not the NFL or its teams. Major trust issues there, and I think that would turn off players from helping. But while we're on the topic, maybe you can get BU to do a study of NFL owners brains -- find out why earning hundreds of millions of dollars every year and having millions of loyal fans doesn't make them happy.''--Brian, Boston
You make two very good points.
• MARK IS CLEVER, AND CORRECT. "Are you sure the tweet from Collinsworth isn't a quote from 10 years ago about Michael Vick?''--Mark, Miami
You make another very good point.
• BUT HOW MUCH BLAME DO YOU PUT ON HIM FOR THOSE RECORDS? "Peter, a thought on why Jake Locker may have impressed the Titans despite his lower than desired collegiate accuracy: His record as a 4-year starter at Washington -- 4-9, 0-12, 4-7, 7-6. He knows how to be a leader on a struggling/rebuilding team.''--Terrance Jakubowski, Los Angeles
I'm not sure if putting up poor accuracy marks and losing records like that is a credit to him. I might say he's been part of the problem. But that's a complicated question, obviously. We'll see if the Titans can turn their offense around with a guy who simply has to be more accurate throwing the ball than he was at Washington.
• GOOD QUESTION. "I don't usually question Bill Belichick's draft strategy, but why wouldn't he make the trade you mentioned with the 49ers (taking a three this year and next for allowing the 49ers to move up)? Was there any real chance that Dowling wouldn't be there at 45? Most didn't even have Dowling as the top corner on the board at that point in the draft. Two threes may not be as much value as Belichick wanted, but it is certainly a good haul for moving back and still getting the player he wanted."--Sam Finkelstein, Chicago
Obviously he didn't make it because he wanted more value if he was going to risk losing Ras-I Dowling. If he moved from 33 to 45, with the voracious draft-day appetite for cornerbacks, there's no way he could have been assured of getting Dowling.
• HE LIKES MIKE. "Read your message from Mike McGuire regarding the bin Laden closure. What struck me most is that we talk about the lost lives in this war on terror, but we rarely give credence to lives changed. The part about Mike regretting missing his kids growing up particularly struck home as I spend a lot of my life on the road away from my family, and deal with a lot of guilt and sadness about it. The difference is my time away is for business, to make a buck and further a career, but what Mike and the rest of our soldiers are giving up is not for themselves, or even for their own families, but for the entire 300 million citizens of this country, and for much of the western world. So I can appreciate that dealing with that pain while facing life and death situations everyday must be 1,000 times more difficult. To miss out on his own life and that of his children is a sacrifice that is on par with what our fallen have given up. I hope that they all know we are in awe of our soldiers and behind them 100 percent, regardless of the politics that divide our country at times.''--Chris, Atlanta
Thanks, Chris. I'm forwarding your letter, along with scores of others, to Mike this week. You can be sure he'll appreciate them.