Out of nowhere, a Buffalo Bills player made noise at the Super Bowl. Like everything else involving the team it meant nothing to anyone outside of Bills country. But when Stevie Johnson talked last Friday about his willing failure to annually follow the Bills' off-season workout instructions, we heard. And pondered. And discussed.
I think Johnson made himself look bad by those comments. You don't want to be a slacker, and you especially don't want people to know you're one. Johnson was all but boastful. At the least, he thinks it sounds cool not to try your best. At worst, he believes it is cool. Neither is right.
But it's not him I care about here the most. It's the Bills.
First on Johnson though: Most of us can't from personal experience relate to what's in these workout manuals, or know much about the level of physical conditioning common to most pro athletes. So let's, if it's not too big a stretch, put it into terms most of us can relate to. Let's go back to school.
Johnson, blending his admission with his previous results, comes off as a B-plus student capable of better. But hey, B-plus still is better than most. Good enough to get you into college, give you some options, maybe earn you a small scholarship.
Let's meet another student though. For the heck of it, let's give him a name -- a random name plucked from thin air. How about, oh, Wesley Welker?
Welker is maybe a C student with a bonkers work ethic. His talent takes him only so far but his hard work does the rest.
(In terms of the real Wes Welker, a player who went undrafted, then cut, then traded, we're talking five seasons of at least 1,165 yards and two first-team All-Pro honors. And yes, people who comment on everything, I know who his quarterback is.)
Johnson is being defended by fans on the basis of his being the first Bills receiver in history to have two (let alone three) consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. To me, his good numbers are not an excuse; rather, they're even further a call to criticism. One of the few good players the Bills have did not best prepare himself for any of the last three seasons, and he admits it. Am I supposed to be more bummed out if it's a backup safety here? I need Johnson to set good examples, and I need him at his best for that is how games are won in sports -- by the performances of your best players. He matters.
As if consecutive seasons as good as Johnson's means anything on a league-wide scale. In 2011 Johnson ranked 19th in receiving yards, and in 2012 he ranked 18th. That means about half the teams had someone that did better.
How would Chan Gailey respond to all this, if he didn't know it already? Thanks a lot, Stevie. How might Russ Brandon react, himself not only the Bills' CEO but also once an undersized college wide receiver? How much money are we paying him, again?
Johnson is now an established good player, a veteran. He's someone whose lead new young players will follow. Is the refusal to follow the team's off-season instructions -- and the brazen act of touting it publicly -- what the Bills want from a leader?
Their actions will tell us.
Players come and go. We only attach to them because they play for our teams. So it's not Johnson that matters here, it's what the Bills do about a player who found it appropriate to tell the world that when it comes to preparing himself for upcoming seasons that he's bigger than the team.
If I'm a football fan in Baltimore or San Francisco I'm laughing out loud. Thank goodness for teams like ours, I'd think, that there are low-standard teams like Buffalo.
And if I'm Doug Marrone, I'm putting a stop to that yesterday. Because now that reflects on me.
If you're trying to get a team of football players to "buy in" as the saying goes, you can't have leaders sloughing off. In my opinion Marrone needs to make this clear. If he does it by straightening out Stevie Johnson in a way that restores Johnson's credibility, great. If he does it by trading Johnson, I may not agree with it but at least I'd respect it.
Marrone may or may not understand the depths to which the Bills have sunk. It's possible that as a first-time NFL head coach he's starry-eyed even by arguably the league's lowliest franchise. It's also possible that as a rookie he's not inclined to ruffle feathers. And there's a good chance he thinks his ability to develop players and out-maneuver opponents on game days will alone make him a winner. That's how coaches are.
But I'd like to see him go further. I don't want to have to wonder this season whether key players on the team don't think enough of its place in the league to give their all. I want to assume that they are. I don't see how the Bills, a small-market relic of a franchise, can win any other way.
And what Johnson said Friday is yet another example of why success last came around so very, very long ago.