Brave move: Texans' decision to draft Williams in 2006 is paying off

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That question is worth pondering as Houston enters the upcoming season believing defensive end Mario Williams could become this year's version of Pittsburgh Steelers star James Harrison. That is, Williams appears on the brink of transforming himself from a hardly-known and rejected commodity, like Harrison was before breaking out in 2007, into an NFL Defensive Player Of The Year-type athlete.

After Williams amassed 26 sacks the past two seasons, earning second-team All Pro honors in 2007 and Pro Bowl status last year, no one could dispel the notion as outrageous.

There is one significant difference between Williams and Harrison, however. Williams was not just hardly-known and rejected. Compared to other No. 1 picks, he was virtually unheard of ... and then despised.

When Williams was drafted No. 1 overall in 2006 out of North Carolina State, much of Houston and the NFL considered his selection an unfathomable mistake. He was jeered in his home stadium, loathed not for what he was, but for what he was not -- Reggie Bush or Vince Young.

(Check progress of every 2006 first-round pick.)

"The unfortunate thing for Mario was he didn't pick himself, somebody else did," former Texans general manager Charley Casserly said this month, looking back at the 2006 draft. "He had to take it all and none of it was justified. It was not going to be a popular decision to take him. We knew that."

What the Texans nor anyone could have imagined was the amount of venom and criticism spewed at the 6-foot-7, 285-pound lightning rod. Once the Texans selected Williams instead of the dazzling Heisman Trophy-winning Bush and god-like hometown hero Young, the pick cut deep into the heart of football country. It became personal. Season ticket-holders cancelled. Fans fired off nasty e-mails and calls to Texans owner Bob McNair, coach Gary Kubiak and Casserly.

"I made the statement, 'if you're going to boo somebody, boo me,'" Casserly said. "I said, 'get all over me. Criticize me.' And they did. They listened."

Talk radio sizzled with name-calling. Casserly resigned two weeks after helping new coach Kubiak through his first draft. Local and national opinion-makers used words like "moronic" and "stupid" to describe the Texans' perceived draft blunder for the ages.

Worse, Bush was taken No. 2 overall and immediately contributed for the playoff-bound Saints in 2006. Young, selected No. 3 overall by the Tennessee Titans, was named AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Even if Young's rookie award came almost by default as he put up pedestrian numbers (12 TDs, 13 INTs, 61.7 QB rating), his team won. And Houston fans were unforgiving, especially since Williams struggled as a rookie. He bounced to all four positions along the defensive line and finished with just 4.5 sacks.

The Texans remained steadfast that time would justify their decision. Turns out they were right. In fact, the No. 2 and No. 3 selections may well go down as Dumb and Dumber. Bush is injury-prone and not nearly as effective as during his rookie year. Young is riding the bench, prone for bizarre off-field behavior.

Since his rookie season, Bush has played just 22 games and rushed for 985 yards and six touchdowns. That's less than Texans' 2008 third-round pick Steve Slaton (1,282-yards, nine TDs) had in 2008 alone.

Young was injured, then benched. He never picked up the Titans' offense as he was replaced by Kerry Collins. Young has thrown just 10 touchdowns against 19 interceptions since his rookie season. Last year, he reached a disturbing low, sulking, refusing to re-enter one game and going M.I.A., with police reporting that friends, family and coaches worried about Young's "emotional well-being."

Thus the question again as we look behind the scenes of the '06 draft and Williams approaches 2009 with legitimate lofty expectations: Were the Texans brilliant or just lucky?

Interestingly, the part of the story that cut the deepest among Houston fans -- spurning Young -- never even was an option for the Texans. The team never seriously considered Young.

From early on during the 2005 college football season, Texans scouts traversed the country grading players. Scouts met weekly by telephone and, as the draft approached, at the Texans' offices. Most of Houston's scouts did not consider Young to be even a first-round pick, or low-first at best.

He was a running quarterback who showed little NFL touch or accuracy. Worse, while Young was a dominant collegiate player, before the 2005 season the Longhorns trimmed their playbook to accommodate him. Scouts considered this a reflection on Young's ability to grasp complexities of offenses. Later, interviews and Young's Wonderlic score did nothing to enhance his stock.

"We did an evaluation of Vince Young and it was unanimous not to take him," Casserly said. "There wasn't anyone in the room who thought he was ready."

Drafting Bush, who was making every highlight real, was a no-brainer, then, right? Not quite.

On a trip to Miami to scout eventual third-round pick Eric Winston, Casserly spoke to several area scouts about prospects and asked specifically about Williams. He eventually scouted three North Carolina State games in person. After a trip to watch Williams against Florida State, Casserly returned to Houston and told Texans owner McNair, "this guy might make more Pro Bowls than anyone we're looking at."

But then came the 2005 Heisman Trophy vote. Bush won. Young was second. The pressure to draft one of those two marquee players ramped up even more. Then came the 2005 BCS Championship Game between Texas and USC. Bush was spectacular, Young was more so.

Young put forth an effort for the ages in the Longhorns' victory and solidified himself as a beloved Texas legend as big as Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan or Hakeem Olajuwon.

What fans did not realize as they ratcheted up the pressure for Houston to draft Young, was that McNair already had decided to sign then-starting quarterback David Carr to a two-year contract extension. That didn't exactly prove to be a brilliant move, but it did eliminate Young from the draft equation.

After Carr's extension was announced in February, the Texans brought Williams and Bush in for contract negotiations and interviews before the April draft. Williams' appearances were considered more as leverage to negotiate with Bush. Even Williams' agent, Ben Dogra, believed it was all just a negotiating ploy, so he initially refused to send his client to Houston.

As for the scouting report on Williams, it was mixed. Some experts considered Williams a longshot prospect, prone to taking plays off.

"We knew what was being written and said, but the building was insulated from the press somewhat," Casserly said. "Bob [McNair] listened and Gary Kubiak had an open mind. We went through the process. We always believed in the guy. It came down to Williams or Bush, and they both had a lot of positive things, but we kept going back to, is [Bush] going to play 65 plays a game?"

On the Wednesday before the draft, Casserly walked through the Texans media relations department offices as staffers were watching television analysts project Bush to the Texans. When the analysts began talking about Mario Williams perhaps going second, third or fourth in the draft, Casserly tapped on the screen and said, "That guy." Two days later, the Texans shocked the NFL by announcing they had signed Williams.

It was widely reported the Texans decided on Williams because of sign-ability issues with Bush. Was that it? Were they just lucky that negotiations fell through with Bush?

In truth, the Texans reached an agreement with both Bush's and Williams' representation before the draft. The only difference was the signing bonus figure was not yet sealed on the Bush deal.

As for luck, there was some involved, but it had nothing to do with failed negotiations with Bush's representation.

The Texans got lucky when Titans owner Bud Adams, who ditched the Houston market for Tennessee in 1996 and remains one of the most unpopular figures in town, decided he wanted to stick it to Houston again. The Titans' scouting department, obviously, is not stupid. There clearly were skeptics when it came to Young's prospects as a quarterback. But Adams reveled in the idea of watching Young shred the Texans twice a year while wearing a Titans uniform. He made sure Young was selected No. 3.

Had the Titans passed on Young, he may have dropped to the No. 9 or 10 pick, perhaps lower. The Texans would not look nearly as genius as they do today had Young not gone No. 3 overall.

And while durability was a question with Bush before the '06 draft, his struggles staying on the field came much earlier than expected, and microfracture surgery, which he underwent in January, is a known career-ender. The Texans' doubts about Bush's durability appear tack-on.

"I knew people weren't really watching what was happening when it came to Mario," Casserly said. "You always are happy and take pride when one of your picks works out. But in all honesty, I'm more happy for him because he was criticized so much and all he ever did was everything we asked."

Lucky? Good? Who knows.

The only thing that's indisputable: The Texans sure were brave.