The Bills had plenty of options with the 224th pick in the 2008 draft, but a player they considered taking earlier was still on the board, making it an easy choice. They liked the player but could not have foreseen his ascent to becoming the team's No. 1 receiver.
Stevie Johnson, a wideout out of Kentucky, “had a great deal of swagger to him,” former Bills director of college scouting Tom Modrak recalled to PFW recently. “He was one of those guys that after the catch, he was always trying to make something happen, and generally did.”
It took a couple NFL seasons for him to take off on the pro level, but Johnson’s swagger remains self-evident, and he earned a five-year contract extension in March worth $36.25 million with $18.05 guaranteed after being the first receiver in Bills history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Heading into 2012, he is the No. 1 receiver on a team that has drawn more national attention than it has been accustomed to over the past decade.
In April of ’08, Modrak, who is now the executive director of BLESTO Scouting Combine, and the Bills’ personnel staff were confident about bringing Johnson aboard.
“Courage, instincts, toughness, a lot of things wrapped up in one,” said Modrak, describing Johnson. “We had a good sense about him and almost took him earlier, then somebody else popped up. It wasn’t as hard as the numbers would indicate. We were comfortable doing it. We thought he’d be a guy that’d make the team, be a backup, and he’s done a whole lot better.”
Johnson might have slipped to the seventh round because many of his skills were raw. He was Kentucky's most improved offensive player as a senior, but had played only two years of high school football. As Nolan Nawrocki wrote in the 2008 Pro Football Weekly Draft Preview book, Johnson, "Has some upside to continue developing but will require considerable molding."
His drop to the 224th overall pick added to an impressive career arc for a player whose college career began at Chabot College, a California community college. It's an experience Johnson said has “motivated me to be the type of player I am in terms of go all out, put the team first.
“My whole play comes off as if I’m trying to bring attention to myself. It’s not like that at all,” he explained in a phone interview from his home in California before heading to Bills camp. “At Chabot, you've got to pay for your own cleats, gloves. We were like a family. … When I came to Buffalo in the seventh round, you know the grind. It’s so much work that needs to be put in to get to where you are.
“I want to cherish it all. I want to bring a lot of excitement. I want everybody to know how much fun I’m having.”
If celebrating a touchdown in unique ways is Johnson’s way of showing everyone his excitement, he has succeeded in that regard.
A simple game of word association with “Stevie Johnson” likely wouldn’t conjure up the numbers he puts up on the gridiron — unless those numbers involve yards penalized for celebrations. Playing for a small-market team that has the longest playoff drought in the league, Johnson tends to be known by most NFL fans first and foremost for his showy celebrations.
“It’s fine with me,” said Johnson, who has scored 17 touchdowns in 29 games the past two seasons. “You can put on the film and you can either watch highlights of celebrations, or you can turn on film and see me running routes against top DBs and putting up stats against them. It comes with the territory. If you’re celebrating, you’re scoring and you’re handling your business.”
The celebrations began in 2010, Johnson's first year as a starter. In a Week Three loss to New England, Johnson mimed shooting a gun into the air, like the Patriots' minutemen. He fell to the ground and was penalized and later fined. Against the Bengals in Week 11, Johnson lifted up his jersey to show a shirt that read, "Why so serious?" referring to "The Joker" from the movie "The Dark Knight."
In 2011, though, the celebrations came to a boiling point. After scoring a TD in a 28-24 loss to the Jets on Nov. 27, Johnson acted as if he shot himself in the thigh, mocking then-Jets WR Plaxico Burress, who spent 20 months in prison for shooting himself in a nightclub in 2008. Johnson then ran around the endzone, arms spread wide to mimick the Jets' "flight" celebration. The ensuing 15-yard penalty helped give the Jets good field position after a botched onside kick, and Burress capped a short drive with a TD catch of his own.
When Johnson scored a TD in Week 17 and celebrated by lifting his jersey to reveal his undershirt, which said, “Happy New Year,” it was the last straw for head coach Chan Gailey, who benched Johnson for the rest of the game, which ended up being a blowout loss to the Patriots.
The benching created uncertainty surrounding Johnson’s future with Buffalo. Sure, he was their clear-cut top receiver, but Gailey had made a statement, and it seemed the team had had enough of his look-at-me celebrations. “He’s a good guy, but he uses some bad judgment at times and if you do that enough and it hurts the team, you’ve got to do something,” Gailey said after the game.
It provided a sour note for the end of Johnson’s contract year, in which he quieted the doubters who thought his 2010 campaign was a fluke. He said that while his wife Britney supported him after the incident, she understood Gailey’s decision.
“She has my back all the time. She’s making sure that I’m OK mentally. When I got benched, she asked what Coach Gailey was talking about. I told her everything that coach said and she said, ‘Well, he’s right,’ " Johnson said. “She’s not just telling me, ‘you’re good,’ she puts me in my place when I need to be, but she also has my back.”
Johnson said he thought that New Year’s Day benching spelled the end of his time in Buffalo.
“It was kind of 50-50,” Johnson said when asked how close he was to leaving. “I thought (the benching) was the final straw. I was like, OK, well, maybe we should start thinking about going somewhere else, because they benched me and we lost the game. It’s going to look like it’s on me.
“When the Bills came back with an offer, I was excited. I didn’t want to leave. I was excited to be able to come back and be a Buffalo Bill for five more years. This is where I started and this is where I want to finish with some playoffs and maybe a Super Bowl to go along with it. That was my goal when I got here.”
Johnson’s antics might have drawn jeers from the Bills' faithful at times, but Buffalo fans knew his importance to the team.
“I know if they had let Johnson walk, the outcry from fans would have been immense,” said Joe Buscaglia, sideline reporter for the Bills Radio Network. “It’s been a while since the Bills have really had a player with that type of personality, other than the gimmick that was Terrell Owens, and I’ve found for the most part, they’ve embraced (Johnson).”
Johnson’s personality hasn’t been a surprise to the Bills, as Modrak saw that side of the receiver during the scouting process.
“I read it as confidence,” Modrak said. “He has shown the flashy side and has done some things he’d probably try to pull back occasionally, but he doesn’t play down the middle of the road. He’s known to step out of the box.
“Probably some of the stuff that’s happened is not where you want it to be. Nevertheless, it’s Stevie, and you’re going to get a lot of good with an occasional hiccup along the way.”
If celebrations are the first thing fans associate with Johnson, the second might be his stats against top defensive backs. In two games last season against Jets CB Darrelle Revis, considered by many to be the NFL's top cover cornerback, Johnson totaled 11 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown.
The endzone antics catch the headlines, but Johnson had to work his way up the ladder to get to this point. He appeared in 11 games as a rookie with one start and had 10 catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns. In 2009, Johnson played in only five games, catching two passes for 10 yards. When Gailey took over in 2010, he rewarded Johnson's work ethic with a starting job and Johnson responded by exploding onto the scene with 82-1,073-10 receiving.
"(Johnson's college coaches) had really good things to say about him in that regard," Modrak said about Johnson's practice habits and work ethic. "But he matched it on film and in practice. That’s what you’re looking for, the support for the words that you’re hearing. I remember they had morning practice at that time, and he looked like one of those guys who was a morning person. He was flying around doing things. Other scouts saw the same things. We matched it up pretty good and felt that would be a quality he would bring."
Asked if he is surprised that Johnson has performed this well, Modrak replied, "We thought he was going to be a good player. When he had opportunities early in his career, he made the most of them, but there were players ahead of him in the pecking order. Am i surprised? I'm totally surprised, but maybe surprised at how good he is and how good he can be, and still being comfortable being Stevie."
Johnson has the interesting juxtaposition of speaking as a player who comes from a humble football background, but he draws somewhat negative comparisons to receivers like Chad Johnson for his flamboyant personality. When asked about how his 2010 breakout season changed him, Johnson explained that he is a “humble cat” and added, “I haven’t made anything of myself yet.” He also is quick to credit his teammates.
“(Johnson) has always been a team-first guy that talks up his teammates, but also holds himself accountable for any mistakes he makes on the field,” Buscaglia said.
On the field, we see the swagger more so than the humility. Johnson discussed the difference.
“As soon as I step on the field, I don’t know where it comes from, I get that feeling. Ain’t nobody stopping me,” he said. “If you line up against me, you disrespect me. That’s how I feel on the field.”
Like his team, Johnson, who turned 26 on July 22, is facing expectations he is not used to in 2012. He now has a new contract and is expected to help lead his team back to the postseason for the first time since 1999.
“Signing the contract doesn’t bring extra pressure to me. I put it on myself because I’m playing in the NFL,” he said. “That’s enough pressure right there. You’re in the NFL. You have to continue to be elite, and I haven’t done nothing yet. I had 1,000 yards back-to-back and got a contract, but I haven’t taken a team to the playoffs. I haven’t been to the Pro Bowl. I haven’t led a team to a Super Bowl.”
Whether he likes it or not, and he claims he understands the attention, all eyes will be on Johnson when he scores this season to see what he does, and if he has learned from last season's benching. He admitted that it changed him “as far as celebrations go,” but added, “I’m still going to be a flashy sort of player. That’s the fun part.”