ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson can be a big-spender, after all.
Frustrated after 12 seasons of missing the playoffs, and realizing that at 93 he's not getting any younger, the Hall of Fame owner was fully on board in prompting the team's successful spare-no-expense pursuit to land prized free-agent defensive end Mario Williams. Wilson said his motivation had nothing to do with addressing his critics, the most polite of whom call him frugal.
"I didn't do this to show people I'm not as cheap as they think I am," he said Friday with a big laugh over the phone from his home in suburban Detroit. "I did it to help the community, to help the team, to get back to the playoffs. We need good players."
No one's going to be calling Wilson cheap after the splash the Bills made two days into free agency Thursday by signing Williams to the richest contract ever given to NFL defensive player.
The 2006 No. 1 draft pick and two-time Pro Bowl starter, who set the Houston Texans franchise record with 53 sacks, is guaranteed $50 million over six years. The deal is potentially worth $100 if Williams meets all the incentive clauses.
It was a bold move made by a team with a once-proud tradition that has become an NFL afterthought in missing the playoffs for a dozen years. It's the league's longest active drought, and a stretch during which Buffalo's enjoyed just one winning season, going 9-7 in 2004.
With this one signing, the Bills addressed their biggest need by improving an anemic pass rush, while also making a case that they could well be relevant again.
"I can't put a figure on how much better we'll be," Wilson said. "But he'll certainly improve us."
Wilson said the Bills' pursuit of Williams began when the player's agent contacted the team to gauge its interest after it became apparent the Texans didn't have enough salary-cap space to re-sign the star pass rusher.
"He said, 'It's down to four teams,' and I said, 'Well, put us in the mix,' " Wilson said.
The next step came Tuesday, when the Bills sent a private plane to North Carolina to pick up Williams and fly him back to Buffalo.
Despite warnings from Williams' camp that he would entertain offers elsewhere, the Bills kept the player in Buffalo to sell him on staying. The Bills went so far as to have Williams' fiancee, Erin Marzouki, fly to Buffalo on Wednesday.
The two then got a tour of the area, and the trip included a few house-hunting stops, Wilson said, adding that Marzouki has already found a potential home.
"If we didn't sign him while he was in Buffalo, we'd never get him," Wilson said. "The agent would take him somewhere else, for more money. But this guy (Williams) made up his own mind and liked what he saw."
General manager Buddy Nix said signing Williams was not a departure from his build-through-the-draft philosophy, but instead a chance to land a difference-maker.
"We've said from Day 1, that if there's a guy there that we think can make difference, we'll be aggressive and go after the guy," Nix said. "This just plugs up a piece of the puzzle, and he'll get us over the hump."
The Bills have attempted to make quick fixes with big contracts that have failed in recent years. Signing Terrell Owens to a one-year $6.5 million contact three years ago boosted ticket sales, but not the Bills' won-loss record with a 6-10 finish.
Then there was their high-priced free-agency foray in 2007 that failed to pan out. That's when Buffalo committed a combined $62 million to offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker in a bid to shore up its unsettled line. Both were cut before the start of the 2009 season.
Williams' signing comes at a critical juncture for the franchise.
The Bills are entering their final year of their lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium with the state and Erie County. Negotiations have yet to begin, but the Bills are anticipated to be asking for as much as $100 million in taxpayer money to help fund major renovations -- both structural and fan-friendly enhancements -- to the 40-year-old facility.
The Bills were also in jeopardy of playing second-fiddle in a passionate sports town that's turned its attention to the NHL's Sabres since Pennsylvania billionaire Terry Pegula purchased the team last year. Pegula made a big splash last summer by committing more than $140 million in contracts in his objective to build a contender.
"Yeah, we're back in the headlines, and I hope we stay there," Wilson said. "I hope the headlines get brighter."