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Williams Has Punch in 1-2 Debate

HOUSTON - Critics hammered the Houston Texans for making defensive end Mario Williams the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL draft over Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush. Some recalled the NBA draft of 1984 when the Portland Trail Blazers took future footnote Sam Bowie with the second pick over Michael Jordan.

The galaxy of college stars going into the NFL draft in 2006 also included Texas quarterback Vince Young, coming off a national title game for the ages, and quarterback Matt Leinart, Bush's Southern California teammate and also a Heisman winner. Three NFL seasons later, that galaxy has been rearranged.

Williams, coming off a Pro Bowl season as a defensive end for the Texans, is the bulwark of their future. Bush, hampered by knee injuries, has yet to be Jordanesque with the New Orleans Saints, who made him the No. 2 pick. Doubters have switched targets.

When the Texans and Saints met Saturday in a preseason game in Houston, it wasn't Bush vs. Williams. Bush sat out the game with a strained calf.

But their NFL careers, anchored about 350 miles apart on Interstate 10, will be compared this season and beyond. They are a reminder that while prospects are ranked and analyzed before every draft and teams are graded the day after, the real measure is Sunday performance.

Bush and Williams received six-year contracts worth more than $60 million with incentives. Just as it was premature in 2006 to call Williams a mistake and Bush a savior, it is too early in their careers to declare a winner. But Bush, who knows all about scrutiny, says comparisons will continue.

"I think it makes for a better story," he says. "I think it's great for two young guys early in their careers who are striving to be the best in their position. . . . May the best man win."

So far, Williams has the edge. He has yet to miss a game and piled up 26 sacks the last two years, and this season he aims to lead the Texans to the first playoff berth in the eight-year history of the expansion franchise.

Bush had an 88-yard touchdown reception in the NFC title game as a rookie, but the last two seasons he has missed 10 games with knee injuries and the Saints haven't made the playoffs.

"I think the expectations for me are high, and I expect a lot more out of myself," he says.

'Colossal mistake' to building block

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrote in 2006 that the Williams pick could go down as the "dumbest move in the history of the NFL draft."

An Arizona Republic writer called it a "colossal mistake."

Williams is colossal. Though listed at 6-6, 288 pounds, he says, "I'm 6-7, probably almost 6-8."

He shrugs off the discrepancy: "It really doesn't matter."

Williams says generally the same thing about the 2006 criticism: "People make their decision on other people based on what everybody else says without even knowing what the reality is."

Texans owner Bob McNair, who brought the team into the NFL in 2002, recalls the 2006 criticism of him, then-new coach Gary Kubiak and former general manager Charley Casserly.

"The Houston Chronicle, on their editorial page, had like a political cartoon. They had me, Kubiak and Casserly. We were hayseeds . . . dumb, dumber and dumbest," McNair says.

Now other picks in that draft beyond Bush are drawing second-guesses.

Young, the No. 3 choice, started 28 games in his first two seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Leinart, drafted 10th by the Arizona Cardinals, started 11 games as a rookie. Both are backups.

Williams, who had 14 1/2 sacks during his last season at North Carolina State, played under the radar. Bush squared off against Young and the Longhorns for the national championship.

"People didn't know who Williams was," McNair says. "They all knew about Bush."

But at the NFL scouting combine, Williams ran the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds and had a vertical jump of 40.5 inches. Big numbers for a big man.

"We thought he was the best player in the draft and the best player for us. It was that simple," says Casserly, now an NFL analyst for CBS.

Williams wasn't an overnight success. As a rookie in the Texans opener, he had two tackles and an assist on a day when Bush racked up 119 yards running and receiving. Williams finished that year with 4 1/2 sacks. But in 2007, 14 sacks made him a Pro Bowl alternate. Twelve last season made him a Pro Bowler.

"We went for a player we thought we could start to build our football team around defensively," Kubiak says. "I think he's only going to get better."

Bush beset by injuries

Saints fans gathered at the team complex on draft day in 2006 and chanted "Reggie, Reggie" before the pick.

New Orleans had been battered in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. The team had gone 3-13. Bush was cause for celebration. As a rookie in the regular season, he ran for 565 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 88 passes for 742 yards and two touchdowns. He returned a punt for a score. He had two playoff touchdowns.

"We wouldn't have won the division and been in the conference championship in '06 if Reggie hadn't been part of our team, and we don't have any qualms about the pick," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis says.

However, in his second season, Bush missed the last four games with a knee injury. He was off to a solid start last season. He returned two punts for touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 6. "That was the most comfortable I've felt in three seasons," he says of last year's start.

Bush suffered a left knee injury in Game 7, had surgery to repair torn cartilage and was out for four games. He returned but spent the last two weeks on injured reserve with more left knee problems. He then had more surgery.

When he left an Aug. 5 morning drill and returned with ice on his knee, it prompted an Associated Press story. He worked full tilt that afternoon.

"I put an ice pack on every day. It ain't going to be the last time," he says. "I'm used to it (scrutiny). It comes with the territory."

In the Saints preseason opener, Bush had three carries for 5 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals. His goal isn't preseason stats; it's to play a full season.

"I think unfortunately due to injuries I haven't been able to accomplish what I've set out to," he says. "But I've got a long career ahead of me."

Bush averaged 7.3 yards a rush at USC. In the NFL, he has averaged 3.7. But he has 24 regular-season touchdowns as a runner, receiver and returner. He has 1,550 yards as a runner and 1,599 as a receiver. For another player, that would be productive. But this is Bush.

"The expectations for him are off the charts, and they should be after what he did at USC," Loomis says. "Expectations are always going to be high if you are a first or second pick or even a top-five."

At 6-0, 203, Bush has not yet run inside consistently. He says he's focusing on "just being explosive and hitting holes" and that he fell into a bad habit of not doing that the last two seasons. But there are many routes to big plays in coach Sean Payton's New Orleans offense, tops in the NFL last season with 410.7 yards a game.

"I've always been a firm believer that hard work pays off," Bush says. "So in due time, it will come, and I hope that this is the year."

Williams, meanwhile, doesn't hear the Sam Bowie comparison anymore.

"It's funny. When I first got here, I couldn't get a reservation at a restaurant," he says. "Now . . . there could be 20 people in line and they move me up to the very front."

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