The Bills have a legitimate top wide receiver whose impressive production is a measure of dedication to his team. They also have a role player with atrocious hands who’s been the most selfish player since the Super Bowl era. Both are Stevie Johnson, the most polarizing player in Buffalo’s recent memory. Each side of the divide wonders if they’ll get any more examples to add as the catching enigma’s future remains uncertain. Even those who see a complex portrait wonder if the painting’s done.
Johnson’s next NFL season will be his seventh if you were worried the years weren’t passing fast enough. There’s still no consensus what tendencies summarize his career, as supporters and detractors strive to cancel each other out. The ideal of nuanced ambivalence can be tough to maintain.
Do you focus on the guy who pouted about not being targeted against the Chiefs in the end zone instead of trying to tackle the interceptor or the one who valiantly competed right after his mother passed away? Is he the player who had a 1,000-yard season in the SEC at a school not considered to be conference royalty or the one who nonetheless fell to the seventh round? Breaking defenders’ ankles is particularly satisfying when it helps prove doubters wrong. The self-aggrandizing end zone displays of earlier seasons don’t negate the uncanny evasiveness in getting there.
There’s always a choice in what’s emphasized. Johnson’s well-chronicled drops don’t outweigh 301 receptions. Similarly, four-digit yardage in three straight seasons is tremendous whether seen as an accomplishment because he had little help or with qualifications because the quarterback had little option but to aim at him. No matter what, he gained a lot even when the Bills didn’t.
Regardless of perspective, Johnson is best as a role player. A shifty receiver with a different profile than a classic speedster shouldn’t be the top option, even if wide-outs are no longer ranked in a caste system as in less enlightened times.
The Bills have a young set of receivers with an intriguing mix of talent, not to mention the possibility of nabbing another rookie. They have many options whether or not James Hardy is walking back through that door. As is often the case, management must pick how they see Johnson: he’s either nearing redundancy or ready to lead the youngsters while dominating from the slot.
Johnson’s not the first skilled Bills receiver criticized for excelling at one facet over another. This crabby hobby goes back to wags pointing out that Elbert Dubenion was nicknamed Golden Wheels, not Golden Hands. But players can still have remarkable careers even if they are best known for proficiency at one of the game’s aspects. Being mediocre to pretty good at everything else doesn’t matter as long as the player can overcompensate with his specialty. It’s fitting that Johnson is peerless at disguising his routes.
So, where’s he going now? Much like cornerbacks covering the wide receiver, fans wonder about Johnson’s destination. His fate will remain in the air until coaches determine if he provides enough value while the front office calculates the salary cap impact. Discussions assessing his place on this roster and in team history might include replies that begin “Yes, but…” Still, nobody but the most heedlessly optimistic fan could have anticipated the impact Johnson has made. The wild plot has been improvised all this time. Why grow predictable now?