What would happen to the Bills if they parted ways with Stevie Johnson after the season? Many fans think this would be a bad move, using this logic:
Johnson is good. How could releasing him help the team? Who could be "better than Stevie Johnson"?
I don't know. Ask some of these people maybe:
Dan Marino, at the time the NFL's all-time most prolific passer, retired from the Miami Dolphins after the 1999 season, a 9-7 campaign. He was replaced by an undrafted journeyman from Dartmouth, someone no one described as "better than Dan Marino". The 2000 Dolphins went 11-5 and won a playoff game -- their last playoff win, by the way -- under Jay Fiedler.
The next year New England lost its best quarterback ever to injury and shoved second-year, sixth-round pick Tom Brady into action and OK you know about him. His success has lasted a tad longer than Fiedler's.
Sure, Dan Marino and Tom Brady fit but what about Peyton Manning? When he left the Indy lineup the Colts fell apart. In other news, Manning's incredible college career at Tennessee ended without a national championship. The next year someone named Tee Martin, a player not one fan described as "better than Peyton Manning", took over and won the national championship for Tennessee.
Back to the Pats. In 2009 Brady and Randy Moss teamed up for 83 catches and 13 touchdowns as the Patriots, as usual, made the playoffs. In Week 3 of 2010 Moss caught two touchdown passes against the Bills, but he was unhappy. New England traded him a week later. The Pats went 14-2 and went from sixth in the league in scoring to first.
Marvin Harrison left the Colts after a 2008 season that saw the Colts go 12-4 and lose to San Diego in the AFC playoffs. The next year the Colts went 14-2, scored 39 more points and went to the Super Bowl. They replaced Harrison's 60 catches from '08 with the same number from fourth-round rookie Austin Collie, who also posted seven touchdowns to Harrison's five. No one thought Austin Collie "better than Marvin Harrison".
The St. Louis Rams lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a season-ending injury in preseason and replaced him with Kurt Warner, a nobody. They won the Super Bowl. No one at the time thought Kurt Warner "better than Trent Green".
In 2010 the Cincinnati Bengals' leading receivers were Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson. The team was 4-12. They cut both of them, drafted A.J. Green and made the playoffs for the first of what is likely to be at least three straight seasons.
The point here isn't that it always works. It's that it sometimes works.
Remember, Stevie Johnson is not on the level of any of these guys, not even Trent Green. These are good or great players on some important teams that were replaced, and their teams improved. Johnson is on a mediocre team. It should be easier to replace him than the players in these examples, perhaps much easier.
It's at this point that I'm abandoning my plan to run through 10 to 20 more sports examples of seemingly irreplacable players being fashionably replaced. Instead I want to focus on the Bills of this year and next.
The Bills are 3-7 in games Johnson has played in. The two he sat out: a 37-14 rout of the Jets, the Bills' easiest win of the season by far; and an overtime loss to the 8-4 Bengals that EJ Manuel also missed. Against Baltimore, the Bills' most important win of the year, Johnson caught one pass for minus-1 yard. Then, with the Falcons game a must-win, Johnson coughed up a likely victory.
It is a fact to say that the Bills have played at least as well on offense this season without Johnson as they have with him.
Does that sound like an indispensable player to you?
I was not excited that Johnson was returning to the lineup for the Atlanta game. Manuel was so effective against the Jets without him (and Woods) that I was hoping he'd get the same circumstances for the Falcons. With Graham and Goodwin as his main downfield targets Manuel hit big plays in the passing game. With Johnson you see a lot of 7-yard passes to a receiver often falling to the ground. Johnson's presence makes it easier for Manuel to stay in his comfort zone, throwing short. But this does not necessarily make Manuel better, or more valuable.
Many Johnson fans, like others, think the Bills next spring should consider drafting the best wide receiver available. Seems like a reasonable idea to me.
If that happens the Bills will have Robert Woods, a second-round pick from 2013, Marquise Goodwin, a third-rounder from 2013, and T.J. Graham, a third-rounder from 2012 to go with a first-rounder from 2014.
In that scenario I have no interest in keeping Johnson around. Johnson's salary-cap number next year is a reported $8.5 million, and he's also reportedly due a roster bonus of $1.75 million. He's on a pace this year for about 65 catches for 700 yards and four touchdowns. I can find that in a lot of places, maybe even on the Bills' own roster.
One more thing: You'll notice, I hope, that there hasn't been one word here about anything but on-field performance. If you want to factor in post-game comments, touchdown celebrations, late-night tacos, off-season workouts or anything else, be my guest. In this case for releasing Johnson I'm leaving all of it out. I see it as the punch Ali didn't throw at Foreman when he was falling to the canvas in Zaire.