Orchard Park, NY -- One more game. Sixty more minutes. One roundtrip flight schedule.
That's all that stands between Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson and his potential exit from the team that once drafted him.
It's been an up-and-down four-year career with the Bills for Johnson. Showing flashes in his rookie season, his progress was curtailed in his sophomore season with the signing of Terrell Owens. Once Chan Gailey got to town and Ryan Fitzpatrick took over at quarterback, Johnson finally had the arena to shine.
Through the first five weeks of 2010, the wideout was in-and-out of the starting lineup. It wasn't until he had three consecutive games with a touchdown that he became an indispensable piece of the offense. Following Buffalo's bye week, Johnson burst back on to the starting scene with his first 100-plus yard performance, 158 on eight catches, against the vaunted Baltimore defense.
From there, the love affair between Johnson and Bills' fans nationwide only grew with each passing week. It reached its peak during Buffalo's comeback win in Cincinnati. Johnson, on a three-touchdown afternoon, raised his jersey revealing an undershirt exposing the words 'Why So Serious?' underneath. An ode to the smash-hit movie The Dark Knight, and a gentle rib towards the then combination of Bengals pass-catchers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, it became a catch-phrase for Bills' fans ever since.
Much like any cinematic piece, the falling action found it's way to the Bills wide receiver against Pittsburgh after the climax in Cincinnati. In overtime against the would-be AFC Champions, the 2-8 Bills got to the extra session with the Steelers. Johnson was by himself, wide open in the end zone, with the ball on the way. The ball, perfectly thrown and able to be caught, hit him square in the hands. He double-clutched, watched the ball hit the turf and sat upright in exasperation.
The Bills went on to lose the game by a field goal, denying them of their third straight win after an 0-8 start.
After the game, whatever ill-will most fans had toward him were disarmed with an emotional outburst at the post-game podium.
"I had the game in my hands and I dropped it," Johnson said with tears welling up in his eyes. "I'll never get over it. Ever."
Did he ever get over it?
"I've gotten over it. I haven't forgot about it though," Johnson said. "I think it's kind of a blessing in disguise. Some people have great seasons -- three, four, five great seasons and then have something bad happen. I had it all in two weeks. I've seen both sides, very fast."
The rest of 2010 passed in ho-hum fashion with one thing perfectly clear: Stevie Johnson had made his mark and was ingrained in the cement of Buffalo's foundation. So much so that he made Lee Evans, the number-one wideout for many years, expendable in training camp leading up to the season.
Evans was dealt to Baltimore, leaving him as the centerpiece for opposing pass defenses to gameplan against. Under the circumstances, Johnson has flourished for the second straight season. He notched his second straight 70-catch season against Denver, and is on the precipice of reaching 1,000 yards receiving once again as well.
Not to say the ups and downs haven't happened in 2011, but the cloud lingering overhead at One Bills Drive was apparent right from the start of the season. Johnson, the overnight sensation, is to be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. A bittersweet feeling for sure, but one that also provides some hope from the four-year Bills wide receiver.
"I don't think I'll be somewhere else next year," Johnson said when asked if he thought about the New England game being his last played for the Bills. "I'm still pretty sure I'll be here next year but if not, yeah, it's a pretty crazy feeling."
What makes him "pretty sure" that he'll be back?
"I don't know. I just feel like being here four years and with the coaches that I have here. With the players, with Fitz signing his deal you would think you would have, you know, the one-two punch," he replied. "When Fitz came on, I came on. So you would think that they would keep us together."
Is there a reason why there's a new, burgeoning ray of optimism coming from his mouth, rather than the stock "I'm just going to play out the season," answer we've grown accustomed to? Had he been encouraged by something expedited his way from the front office?
"Nah, I haven't been enc-...," he started to say. "Just my own thoughts. That's it."
After speaking with the Associated Press in December, it was revealed that Johnson was looking for an annual salary below $9 million. One that would be below the price the Bills would have to pay if they were to franchise him.
As a wide receiver, Johnson would be owed right around the $10 million mark if the Bills go that route.
The likelihood of the Bills wanting to go that high for a one-year contract after struggling to come to terms on a long-term deal with a figure below $9 million doesn't exactly breed positive thoughts for what may happen.
It's also not a stretch to think teams will look at video from Johnson's performances against New York's Darrelle Revis and Denver's Champ Bailey, and talk themselves in to overpaying for his services. Whatever the case may be, it will be an interesting off-season between the two sides.
An avid supporter of Johnson, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't want this to be the end of their on-the-field partnership.
"I certainly hope not," said the quarterback. "I know it's a business. I have thought about it. I mean, he's been a guy, you know, just kind of our story together and how we've grown the last three years together as players. He's a guy that I've really appreciated and I know that he knows that. I hope that he's back. You never know what's gonna happen, but I'm always in his corner."
No matter if you laugh extensively at his touchdown celebrations or vehemently disapprove of some of his decision making after a play, most can agree on one universal thing:
Stevie Johnson is a darn good football player, and one that would provide yet another crater-sized hole in a roster full of them if they were to let him walk.
What comes to pass has yet to be determined, but Johnson knows in his heart he wants to be back.
"Yeah, most definitely. I do want to be here," he said. "I'm still very optimistic that I will be here in Buffalo even if I was to test out free agency and all that. What brings me back here is because of the guys with like Fitz, with coach Gailey. I think we've got a good core here. We went on a losing streak and everything, but I think we've got a good core here and I think we can only get better."
Johnson will line up for the Bills at wide receiver, perhaps for the last time, in Foxboro against the New England Patriots.