So here we are, 13 years and 13 games into the playoff drought. As you might imagine, it’s no carnival of glee on Wednesday at this point in a lost season. You search for fresh new ways to ask the same old questions.
The appointed spokesmen try their best to answer honestly.
At one point, I looked around the Bills locker room and thought of how many coaches and players have passed through without altering the losing culture. There have been flickers of hope this season, but it’s hard to sell progress when you’re 4-9 two weeks before Christmas.
It also occurred to me that Stevie Johnson is a fitting face for a flawed Buffalo franchise. He’ll raise your hopes, make you laugh, elevate your fashion sense. But in the end, he’s less than he appears to be, a tease who usually lets you down.
Oh, Johnson is an engaging guy, a marginal star who has produced some good receiving numbers and a few clutch plays. But as a player and a personality, his act has grown thin. I suspect the Bills brain trust is beginning to wonder if the guy is worth the money and trouble.
Johnson hasn’t done anything truly outrageous, like the multiple celebrations that embarrassed the Bills two years ago. But he hasn’t really changed, either. You never know what to expect. He marches to his own drum and too often reverts to his old childish, self-aggrandizing ways.
Two weeks in a row, Stevie tried to distance himself from his own mistakes after crushing Bills losses. First, it was the fumble late in regulation of a tie game against Atlanta. Last week, it was a missed pass from EJ Manuel that led to an early interception.
After the Falcons game, Johnson insisted it wasn’t a gaffe, but a great play by the opposition. After the loss in Tampa, he pointed out that it had happened early in the game and “don’t even matter.”
We can debate his rationalization about the fumble in Toronto. Johnson went out of his way to praise the defender, as if it were some noble gesture to credit an opponent rather than put the blame on himself – as team players are expected to do.
“That’s what I’m supposed to say,” Johnson said. “But that’s not real, though. I got to keep it real.”
That’s the main thing for Stevie, keepin’ it real. It’s part of his well-crafted image to defy the rigid strictures of pro football, to stand apart. That’s why Jim Rome would put him on the national airwaves during the Super Bowl to talk about how he ignores the team workout program.
Johnson has never been one to toe the line, to mouth the dull, predictable things. We love a free spirit. Nothing like good copy during another losing season. But it’s not the best thing for a team in the buttoned-down universe of the NFL.
I can’t imagine Doug Marrone is amused right now. The head coach went into the locker room after the Tampa embarrassment and had everyone talk about accountability. Then Johnson told us that a dropped pass that led to an interception didn’t matter.
Marrone is a tough, first-year coach looking to establish a new culture at One Bills Drive. The match with Johnson seems incompatible. A coach wants players he can trust and build around, leaders who are more concerned with accountability than what his hip friends regard as “real.”
Athletes assume an outsized share of blame all the time. EJ Manuel says “It’s on me” when he has a bad game.
That’s another issue here – Johnson’s dubious chemistry with the rookie quarterback. More than once during a game, Stevie has displayed his frustration with EJ for all the world to see. Fred Jackson had to approach him on the bench during one game to set him straight.
Johnson’s act might be tolerable if he actually performed like a star. He’s a No. 1 receiver in name only. The Bills treated him like one – and overpaid him – because they had no one else to play the part. On most NFL teams, he would be a No. 2 or worse.
He’s a good receiver, not a great one. And for some reason, the Bills’ offense has been better without him this year. Two of their best passing games – the overtime loss to the Bengals and the big win over the Jets – came when Johnson was injured.
Rookie Marquise Goodwin had a long touchdown catch in each game (40 and 43 yards). Johnson has one 40-plus TD grab his entire career. Sure, he’s a possession receiver who does much of his work over the middle, but for $7.25 million a year, you’d like to see him break one now and then.
There was a lot of talk about accountability and change after the loss in Tampa. The first thing we heard was Marrone talking about the need to get Goodwin and T.J. Graham more involved in the offense.
Marrone danced around questions about Johnson on Wednesday. He said he’s worried about the receivers as a whole, not individuals. But if the coaches want to see more from the kid wideouts (including Robert Woods), you have to wonder what it means for Johnson’s long-term future here.
Johnson isn’t doing a lot for Manuel’s development. There are times when Manuel seems to be forcing the ball his way, as if deferring to the myth of Stevie as an elite receiver. It’s too early to say how good Manuel will be.
But the Bills won’t be a top offense as long as Johnson is the No. 1. They should have let him go after the outrageous 2011 season. Instead, they gave him a five-year, $36.25 million extension. It was a mistake.
Johnson hasn’t come close to justifying the investment. He doesn’t have a 100-yard game since Week 2. He has six TD catches in his last 24 games.
I’m told the Bills’ leadership is taking a long, hard look at Stevie and contemplating whether he’s worth keeping around. He’s one of only five players left from the 2008 team. Maybe a change of scenery would be the best thing for all involved.
“Well, since you’re asking the question, you never know how the grass is on the other side,” Johnson said. “I can’t say whether it’s going to be good or not. I started off with a goal here and I want to complete it.”
The chatter about winning rings hollow after awhile. Two years ago, when I advocated not re-signing Johnson, I said he had separated from the team one too many times. Now, I’ve lost count.
There’s been a lot of talk about this year’s team “feeling different.”
It won’t be truly different, a winning culture, until Stevie is no longer part of it.