So, if I were to tell you last winter that the Buffalo Bills would say goodbye to both Terrell Owens and Josh Reed before the start of free agency, James Hardy would get cut before the fall, Lee Evans would go on to have the worst statistical season of his career in 2010 and Trent Edwards would utterly flame out as the starting quarterback, you’d be safe to assume the team’s wide receiver situation would be in total chaos, no?
You’d be entirely wrong.
Perhaps with the exception of Kyle Williams’ emergence as a Pro Bowl caliber defensive tackle regardless of scheme, no storyline on the Bills largely mediocre 2010 season had a better ending than the rapid resurgence of third-year receiver Stevie Johnson. After two seasons of play about as eventful as a Dick Jauron press conference, Johnson literally exploded, both on and off the field into Buffalo’s lone must-see attraction.
An unheralded yet talented seventh-round pick out of Kentucky, Johnson was impressive in practice but spent the majority of his first two seasons in Buffalo parked near the bottom of Jauron’s depth chart. Wedged behind veteran receivers Owens, Reed and Evans when it came to playing time, the amount of snaps Johnson saw, to put it nicely, were limited. He showed promise as a rookie; suiting up for 10 games as a rookie in 2008 and catching 10 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
It appeared Johnson took a step back in 2009. Jauron used him even more sparingly than in his first year and he would go on to dress for just five games, grabbing just two passes for a total of 10 yards.
When offensive minded Chan Gailey took over as the Bills head coach in January, it was easy to anticipate Johnson’s days in Buffalo could be over, especially since it seemed on the surface the organization would make a splash in the receiver market via free agency or the draft, especially after telling Owens and Reed their services were no longer desired.
Quite obviously, Gailey had other ideas.
Gailey spent countless hours poring over Bills film from the Jauron/Perry Fewell regime. He had long conversations with pure football general manager Buddy Nix and spoke with other trusted assistants. In the end Gailey not only decided Johnson was a great fit for his new Buffalo offense, but he’d hand him the keys to a starting job entering training camp. In one offseason despite the numbers not justifying a promotion, Johnson went from spare part to the engine that would drive the Bills wherever the offense was headed.
Johnson’s endorsement over the offseason certainly raised eyebrows, including this reporter. This was supposed to the season a Buffalo third-year receiver would break out; but his name would be Hardy, not Johnson. The Bills invested an early second-round pick in Hardy, plucking him in 2008 when fellow receiver prospects DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal were still on the board at pick 42 because the organization was infatuated with his size and ability to be a red zone terror. Plus, the team brought speedy veteran Chad Jackson in and used a fourth-round draft pick on Marcus Easley, not to mention Gailey said repeatedly he’d find better ways to utilize Roscoe Parrish than Jauron ever did (he did).
Yet it was Johnson who put a stranglehold on the starting spot alongside Evans. He significantly outperformed both Hardy and Jackson, both of whom were ultimately cut before the season started.
Still, it was a risky proposition going into the regular season starting a third-year pro who statistically accomplished nothing in the league.
What a difference nearly a half-year can make, eh?
Johnson wasn’t just productive in his first season as a starter, he became the catalyst for the Bills offense with or without Evans on the field. Johnson would go on to catch 82 passes; tying Evan’s career-high and the most by a Bills receiver since Eric Moulds hauled in 88 in 2004. He went over 1,000 yards receiving (1,073) and his 10 touchdown receptions put him in a five way tie for the second-most in Bills single-season history— just one behind Bill Brooks’ 11 in 1995.
He’d also go on to have one of the more memorable moments in recent team history twice in a seven day span; one of them being for the right reasons and the other, not so much.
His name was put on the map nationally and quickly became a media darling on November 21. Playing in Cincinnati against the pair of flamboyant, well-known receivers Chad OchoCinco and Owens, who referred to themselves as Batman and Robin, Johnson out did them both in the production… and showmanship departments.
Early in the third quarter with the Bengals seemingly in control, up 31-14, Johnson took in a 28-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick for a touchdown. Upon reaching the end zone he lifted up his jersey to reveal a white undershirt with the now famous saying “Why So Serious”; a reference of the Joker character in the Batman series. After Drayton Florence returned a Cedric Benson fumble to pull the Bills within three, Johnson struck again for an 11-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter to give the Bills a 35-31 lead. The backbreaker came less than three minutes later when following a Carson Palmer interception, Fitzpatrick hooked up with Johnson for their third score; a 32-yard strike to send the Bills on their way to the comeback victory. Johnson finished the game with eight catches for 137 yards and the three scores.
What followed was a week of publicity everywhere as Johnson appeared on numerous talk shows, including ESPN’s First Take, the Jim Rome Show and basically anyone of note with a microphone and camera.
Perhaps in part, it led to the low point of his young career just days later. Playing at home against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson was having an up and down affair. He had pulled in seven passes for 68 yards but also committed a couple of big drops, one leading to a Troy Polamalu interception that could’ve won the game for Buffalo in regulation. In overtime with the Bills on the Pittsburgh 40, Fitzpatrick executed a perfect play action pass and threw a flawless ball to a cutting Johnson in the left corner of the end zone. Inexplicably as it always seems to happen to the Bills in big games, the ball sailed right into Johnson’s hands— and then threw them. The unfathomable drop visibly stunned Johnson, the raucous crowd and the entire team. Pittsburgh would go on to win the game in overtime and the Johnson gaffe was replayed relentlessly on sports shows all over for the wrong reasons—provided you were rooting for the Bills.
To make matters worse, an emotional post game press conference saw Johnson say he’d never get over the play. He then came home and put out the now infamous tweet that insinuated he blamed God for the game altering mishap. Of course, the tweet was completely blown out of proportion by the national media, even making news on worldwide stages like CNN, forcing Johnson to go on the defense and claim he wasn’t actually blaming anyone but himself.
Despite the on field blunder and questionable judgment that followed, it was a breakthrough season. In a sign of how much confidence Fitzpatrick developed in his receiver, the following week at Minnesota his first two passes were targeted directly to Johnson.
By his own admittance, Johnson needs to improve in some area and perhaps the Pittsburgh game down the road will serve as a valuable slice of humble pie. He demonstrated plenty of valuable assets on the football field but also showed he must continue the process of getting better while mastering the mental aspect of unconditional focus and concentration on every play.
Although he doesn’t like to say as much and gives Evans a ton of (deserved) credit for his maturation, Johnson is most likely the Bills new number one receiver going forward. He has the size and route running to get open consistently and now has the numbers to back it up. Arguably in no small part due to Johnson, the wide receiving corps is one of the few areas the organization can call a strength of the team.
Johnson says the unit came together collectively and that it’s hardly a one or two man effort.
“We came in and nobody knew who was going to be the second receiver,” Johnson said immediately after the season. “Now, we’ve got three, four, five receivers that can play. That’s really nothing to worry about there, but there’s still room for improvement everywhere. Even if you think that you’ve got it all, there’s still ways to improve and make the team better.”
Interestingly, Johnson is evolving into a go-to receiver at precisely the right time. In 2011 he’ll play out the final season of his four-year rookie deal at the basement bargain salary of roughly $500k. Another season similar to the one he just had lines him up for a significant payday, if Nix doesn’t call to negotiate an extension beforehand.
For now at least, Johnson is demonstrating patience and saying all the right things.
“Oh, it’s only one year that I’ve done this,” he said. “There are guys that have done it two, three maybe four years before they even got extensions or contracts or stuff like that. It’s only one year.”
As he’s done for his first two off seasons in the league, Johnson will go back to the drawing board in the coming months, figure out what he needs to improve on and work harder than he ever has to make that leap of becoming a long-term elite receiver. The difference is this time he has the 2010 measuring stick to draw from. Besides that, he says nothing will change.
“Well, it’s still the same,” Johnson said. “Now, I just have numbers to look at and see how I can get better and do much more than what I produced this season. My offseason is still the same. I’m still going to go to my high school and work out with my friends and some family – run my routes and do things like that. But now, the difference is that I’ve seen I had 1,000 yards this year and how I got it and where I let some of them go. So, now I can build off of that.”
(Photos by Michael Thomas)
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