On Thursday, the Buffalo Bills signed Mario Williams –– this off-season’s prize defensive free agent –– to the richest deal ever given to a defensive player in NFL history.

In this power-to-the-people era of the tea party, Occupy Wall Street and grassroots-based international revolutions, it appears a much lesser-known group of disgruntled masses for a common cause finally had its voice heard.

On Thursday, the Buffalo Bills signed Mario Williams –– this off-season’s prize defensive free agent –– to the richest deal ever given to a defensive player in NFL history.

When the 2012 NFL calendar year kicked off at 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Bills did not hesitate for a second in making their all-in push for Williams. GM Buddy Nix and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt flew the team’s private jet to meet Williams at his home in North Carolina and then flew him back to Buffalo N.Y.

Once in Buffalo, the full-court press continued. Additional team officials and defensive tackle Kyle Williams joined Mario Williams for dinner. Then it was off to the team’s facilities in Orchard Park before an overnight stay was booked, presumably against Tom Brady’s advice.

On Wednesday, the team flew in Williams’ fiancée to check out the area. The couple then went for a visit to Jim Kelly’s suburban home in Orchard Park, to pick the brains of both the Bills’ legendary quarterback and his Western New York native wife about off-the-field matters. The day commenced with an outing at a Sabres’ game before another overnight, which presumably made Brady’s skin crawl.

On Thursday, not too terribly long after arriving back at One Bills Drive, with tens of thousands of Bills fans waiting in anxious anticipation, Williams finally signed on the dotted line.

Yes, Mario Williams –– former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams –– was actually doing what would have been considered the unthinkable 72 hours earlier, at least to most observers and especially an overwhelming majority of Bills fans. He was agreeing to join the Bills, signing a lucrative six-year contract, worth $96 million, with the potential to become $100 million.

And at that moment, the revolution – however small and insignificant it may have been in the grand scheme of things – was a success for the growing number of fed-up Bills fans.

The team – which had gone either on the very cheap or the sorely ill-advised (2007 signings of Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker) for the better part of the last decade – finally appeared to be swayed by the people.

Fans fed up with the mediocrity and general apathy at One Bills Drive may not have been picketing or taking part in sit-ins outside of Ralph Wilson Stadium. But their growing dismay was becoming more evident through negative blogs, talk radio chatter and most notably, sagging season ticket sales.

Despite just one winning season since 1999 and not one playoff appearance since the same year, season ticket sales inexplicably picked up towards the latter part of the ’00s to the point of approaching near-record numbers of the team’s heyday.

But those numbers had plummeted – and for good reason – since that time.

While Wilson or team officials would certainly never go on record admitting as much, you really have to wonder how much the perceived negativity surrounding how the team does business motivated them to go all out in their pursuit of Mario Williams.

Case in point: About a month ago, my brother, a former season ticket holder like myself, received a call from the Bills inquiring about his interest in getting back on board with season tickets.

When pressed about why he dropped the tickets and wasn’t interested in renewing, my brother – in so many words – voiced his frustration with the front office (Wilson) and their lack of commitment towards transforming the team into a playoff contender. Essentially, many fans saw the Bills as the Pittsburgh Pirates or Kansas City Royals of football, despite the fact the NFL revenue structure allows for a much more level playing field than Major League Baseball.

And I’ve got a hunch, my brother’s general sentiment was also shared by a number of former season ticket holders who were inquired similarly by the team’s sales staff.

So to that end, I think – regardless of what Wilson may state publicly – the signing of Mario Williams was partially in reaction to an increasingly fed-up and non-paying fan base.

And he’s already winning many over again by showing he’s willing to take a serious step to make the Bills relevant again.

In fact, in the first 24 hours since the Williams signing, more than 1,000 new season tickets were sold.
And there’s also this thing about an impending stadium lease renewal, which will require a reported $100 million in taxpayer-generated revenues to help renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The powers that be know who would have to foot the bill on that project.

And they also must have figured out that with patience running increasingly thin among fans, something drastic had to be done to help save face and more importantly, help turn the franchise around for the better.

Bob Benz, assistant sports editor for The Leader, can be reached by email at rbenz@the-leader.com.