Doug Marrone found it necessary to have a “long talk” recently with Stevie Johnson.
The Buffalo Bills’ coach knew frustration was building with his team’s eccentric wide receiver, and he wanted to clear the air.
It’s been a season full of challenges for the 27-year-old Johnson. He missed two games earlier in the year because of injuries – something that’s never happened since he became a starter in 2010. He’s also had to adjust to playing with three different quarterbacks – all of whom have a combined 12 NFL starts.
“I had a long talk with Stevie about the challenges coming in,” Marrone said this week. “Playing with a young quarterback and obviously the injuries.”
Johnson missed his team’s Week Six loss to Cincinnati because of a back injury. He also sat out the Bills’ most recent game, a 37-14 win over the New York Jets in Week 11, because of a right groin strain.
Because of both the uncertainty at quarterback and his own injuries, there has been a noticeable dip in Johnson’s numbers. Through the team’s first 11 games, he has 41 catches for 471 yards and three touchdowns. He’s on pace to finish with 60 catches and 685 yards – far short of the stats he’s put up the past three years.
Over that time, Johnson has become the Bills’ first receiver ever to post three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, and has averaged 79 catches, 1,041 yards and eight touchdowns per year.
Without the usual production from their No. 1 receiver, the Bills’ passing game has suffered. The team ranks 27th in the NFL in passing yards per game, with 197.
“It’s difficult, because there’s things like the injuries that you’re not accustomed to,” Johnson said. “Then there’s the new aspect of players coming and trying to build chemistry with certain players, especially when your QB is being interchanged like every other week.”
But those are not the only two reasons Johnson has been frustrated.
“It’s the talent that we have,” he said. “Not getting the results that we’re really working for, it was very frustrating. It’s all that mixed together.”
Johnson’s body language has sometimes made it obvious how he’s feeling. He memorably threw his arms up in disgust after reserve quarterback Jeff Tuel threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in Week Nine against Kansas City.
Johnson thus welcomed the opportunity to speak freely with his coach.
“It was cool because now he knows where my mind was,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I can be misunderstood, and I think he probably was assuming since, you know, the numbers wasn’t the same as the previous three years, he may have thought I was getting frustrated about some other things.
“I think it gave him peace of mind, knowing I’m not mad at him or any other player. I’m just mad at the situation, losing these games. The talent is different this year from previous years, so that’s where the frustration came from, and I think he understood that.”
Johnson returned to practice this week following the team’s weekend off and is expected to be in the lineup Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto’s Rogers Centre. It will be the next opportunity to build a rapport with starting quarterback EJ Manuel. The pair has started and finished only five games together.
“When EJ was healthy, Stevie wasn’t. When Stevie was healthy, EJ wasn’t,” Marrone said. “You play with different quarterbacks, so it’s very difficult. People are going to look at the end of the day and come to you and say ‘this is down, this is down, this is down’ and they’re really not going to look at the whole situation. He’s a productive player, one that when you keep practicing together you’re just going to see his numbers go higher and higher.”
One bright spot of the Bills’ passing game is that while Johnson’s numbers are down, the team has promising young players taking advantage of their opportunities behind him. Rookies Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods have combined for 42 catches, 610 yards and five touchdowns.
“On this team, we really don’t have a No. 1 receiver,” Johnson said. “That’s how I see it. I think we’re all No. 1s, really. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is throwing it to. We’re getting there, but it’s taking a while. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Hopefully we can continue to build this chemistry, because with the talent that we’ve got, we should be moving the ball up and down the field.”