The look on Steve Johnson's face, after a costly fumble in the closing seconds of regulation eliminated an opportunity for the Bills to pull out an important game against the slumping Atlanta Falcons, is a microcosm of his mildly tumultuous six seasons in Buffalo. Johnson stood on the sideline with his helmet pinned to his hip, looking bewildered how he let another play get away from him in a crucial situation.
The Stevie narrative is one all too familiar to those who stake claim to being fans of the franchise. The fumble was just another black-mark in a long line of painful mistakes committed by the former seventh-round pick.
His run-ins with fate began on November 28, 2010 when Johnson dropped what would have been a game-winning touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson was in his third season with the team, but first as the Bills' go-to receiver after the Terrell Owens experiment fizzled in 2009. The moment proved to be too big for the then 24-year-old receiver and he compounded the mistake with a TMZ worthy meltdown on Twitter following the game.
Johnson blamed God for his misfortune, setting in motion an avalanche of mockery and hysteria from every talking-head with a microphone at their disposal.
The 2011 season brought on a new set of unwanted attention to the receiver, as he was penalized twice at important moments in games for excessive celebration. None bigger than the Week 17 gaffe against the New England Patriots when Johnson was benched following his second touchdown of the day for lifting his shirt to reveal the phrase "Happy New Year" on his undershirt.
Buffalo led 21-0 after the score. They lost 49-21 in Tom Brady's biggest comeback of his career until his miracle against Denver a few weeks ago.
Fast-forward to this season and Johnson has had three more chances to change the stigma attached to his otherwise good career. In EJ Manuel's first game as a professional, he found himself having the almighty Patriots on the ropes late in the fourth quarter. The Bills had the ball and the lead with only minutes to play with a critical third-down play needed to close out the defending AFC East champs.
The young quarterback looked to his most seasoned wideout and found him open on a quick out route to the left side. Johnson saw the ball coming his way out of his break and began to turn upfield, dropping the crucial pass in the process. Brady rallied the troops on their final drive and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a game-winning field goal with only seconds remaining.
Manuel's impressive play softened the blow of the loss, but Johnson's drop became a fixation of analysis for the few days after the game.
Johnson quieted critics a week later by catching a game-winning touchdown as time expired against a much-improved Carolina Panthers squad. He found himself wide open in the back corner of the end zone and Manuel once against trusted him to make the play, but this time Johnson obliged with a positive finish.
Johnson's Future in Buffalo
The Bills made a commitment to Johnson for the long term during the 2012 offseason when they gave him a cap-friendly five-year, $36.25 million deal. Given his outstanding numbers in 2010 and 2011, the investment hardly seemed like a bad one despite the distractions and antics.
Johnson's faults aside, he made good on Buffalo's commitment by becoming the first Bills' receiver to reach the 1,000-yard plateau in three straight seasons. With guys like Andre Reed, James Lofton and Eric Moulds all having spent prolific years in Orchard Park, the accomplishment is not without significance.
Add in the fact that Johnson has caught passes from eight different starting quarterbacks since being a seventh-round selection in 2008, his numbers are quite good considering the circumstances.
Johnson's targets were sure to dip a bit in 2013 with a rookie quarterback and a plethora of new receiving options harvested from April's draft. However, big things were still expected of him as the speed on the outside was supposed to open up things for Johnson underneath.
|Steve Johnson's Stats 2010-2013 Projected*|
|Year||Receptions||Yards||YPC||First Downs||First Down %|
Injuries and drops have marred the season for Johnson in what was supposed to be a fast-tempo, high-flying offense. His per-game numbers have declined, not significantly, but enough for questions to resurface about his position as the Bills' No. 1 receiver. Two more costly drops in a season full of opportunities gone unclaimed have put Johnson on the hot seat.
Mike Schopp of WGR550 went as far as to say this drop was the last straw for Johnson's tenure in Buffalo. Schopp calling for the Bills to pass on Johnson is nothing new, as the two traded barbs this past offseason after the receiver made questionable remarks in an interview with Jim Rome. However, Schopp is probably not the only Buffalo native concerned about Johnson's top-dog status moving forward.
Schopp's question is a fair one—is Steve Johnson worth the money he is being paid?
From a pure numbers standpoint, Johnson provides one of the best values in the league. Coming into 2013, Johnson is the 22nd highest-paid receiver in the NFL according to Over the Cap, just behind the likes of Sidney Rice and Marques Colston. Considering 20 or fewer receivers have hit the 1,000-yard milestone in each of the last three seasons, Johnson is in rare company.
Johnson is also one of the better route-runners around the league. He has a knack for getting open against tough corners, including getting the best of Darrelle Revis over the years.
What Johnson lacks is the accountability and demand of excellence required to be a leader on a team searching for one. Johnson is one of the longest tenured and most successful Bills, but the absence of a C-patch on his jersey is a tell that maybe his teammates don't trust him to lead on or off the field.
Johnson blamed God three years ago for his mistake and when he was asked about the fumble on Sunday, he responded by saying Robert McClain made a nice play. A nice play sure, but why not admit that perhaps a guy expected to be a No. 1 receiver should have held onto the ball in a key spot? It can't always be someone else's fault can it?
Contract status alone will keep Johnson on the roster until his agreement with the team expires following the 2017 season, barring an unforeseen trade. However, Buffalo may have to consider looking for a receiver with qualities expected of the top receiver on the depth chart. Perhaps rookie Robert Woods can be that guy in the future, but even he lacks the attributes guys like Calvin Johnson, AJ Green and Andre Johnson possess.
Finding players like the aforementioned is far from an exact science, but how good would a Buffalo receiving corp look with a height-speed specimen on the outside? My guess is, much different.
Johnson still has the skills to be a productive receiver in Buffalo for a long time, but in regards to his true No.1-status, the jury is out.