Believe it or not Stevie Johnson had close to his typical game Sunday against Kansas City. He caught five passes; his season average is 4.75 per game, his career average 3.96. His catches Sunday went for 36 yards, a bit below the norm (average of 52 for the season, 50.8 career). He did not score.
He was famously open on the Play Of The Year in the third quarter, an ill-fated third-and-goal Jeff Tuel pass from the 2 that instead went to covered T.J. Graham -- well, it almost did. Instead it was intercepted and returned for a touchdown and instead of being a game out of a playoff spot with the "easy part" of the schedule ahead the Bills are 3-6.
We are left to ponder how Johnson could have done more, how much he really is an innocent victim of that result, and whether a Bills team that's lost two of every three this season is better than its record.
Johnson is perhaps the one Bills player of whom every fan has a strong opinion. He has in six seasons given us lots of what Johnson might call "action".
A small sample:
In 2010 at New England after a touchdown he pretended to be shot in an imitation of a Patriots "minuteman"; blamed God on Twitter for his drop of a game-winning touchdown pass against Pittsburgh that same season; caught 82 passes for 10 touchdowns in his first of a Bills-record three straight 1,000 yard-plus seasons; in 2011 mocked Jets receiver Plaxico Burress by (again) pretending to be shot after a touchdown; early this year told a national radio audience that he commonly threw the Bills' off-season training directives in the garbage.
Johnson is the 10th-leading receiver in Bills history, in both catches and yards gained, and in my opinion it's very hard to consider him less than one of their 10 best receivers ever. He has a knack for getting open against even the game's top cover-corners. In an era relatively lacking for highlights, Johnson has given the Bills and their fans many.
But his successes aren't what define his career. I'm not sure controversy should either; receivers and edgy touchdown celebrations these days are common.
So what does?
I asked myself this question at the stadium Sunday shortly after watching Kansas City's Sean Smith run that pick back 100 yards, chased at full-speed by both Graham and Robert Woods while Johnson jumped and pouted back in the end zone.
That play sums up Johnson's career in a way. He came wide open on a third-down goal-line pass, a rare skill. The pass went elsewhere, rendering his achievement useless. He got upset, and he made sure everyone knew it.
His high level of ability, his value on the play not coming to fruition, and his selfish histrionics -- all on display at once.
That right there is Stevie Johnson's career as a Bill.
It's interesting to me for how capable Johnson is that he has never seemed to convince the people in power around him that he deserves the ball more. No doubt that a prohibiting factor is that these people this year are different. New coaches this year and three new quarterbacks. But even with Gailey/Fitzpatrick, Johnson never quite became the so-called number-one option that teams -- often teams like the Bills with lesser surrounding talent -- lean on.
Does it surprise you that Johnson has only once in his career caught more than eight passes in a game? (Good for you if you know the game because I didn't. It was in Toronto against the Bears where he had 11 catches.) Or how about that he only twice has more than one touchdown catch in a game? Twice!
No doubt his defenders have their guns up to tell me how the Bills haven't had good enough quarterbacks. This is where I tell them that isn't the point here and then they tell me again that the Bills haven't had good enough quarterbacks. Like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Or Matt Schaub. (Andre Johnson has 36 games of nine catches or more. That's 35 more than Stevie. 35.)
The point is that whoever the Bills' quarterback or play-caller is at a given time, Johnson hasn't earned their respect enough to be targeted like the other big guys in the league.
And that's on him.
There's no way to know exactly what explains it. It's all been evolving, with different players and coaches and opponents and situations. Maybe a coach recalls a famous dropped pass and goes elsewhere with a play call. Maybe a quarterback doesn't appreciate being shown up after a bad pass and ignores him. Maybe either the coach or the quarterback or both aren't competent enough to know that throwing to Johnson more is a good idea.
As I see it, neither Chan Gailey nor Nate Hackett has thought enough of Johnson to make him "the game plan", so to speak. To my eyes it's been more of a we're gonna run our offense kind of team. In general I accept that. Johnson isn't an elite player. Even with all the players that bow out every year he's yet to make a Pro Bowl. I tend to laugh a little bit when on a ticker on Sundays the networks provide us a stat update on "Steve Johnson". In a sense, the league doesn't know he is.
But at times I've wanted the Bills to think more of him and, in essence, decide on a big play that they are throwing the ball to him no matter what. That hasn't happened often enough.
In life it is up to each person to manage relationships well enough to get what they want. Perhaps what Johnson is missing most is the power of persuasion.