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Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Steve Johnson eager to build with Buffalo

By Tim Graham

Johnson
Buffalo receiver Steve Johnson hopes to build on his 1,073-yard, 10-touchdown season.
Steve Johnson is the tallest guy at his gym and the only one with a piercing near his cheekbone.

Johnson would stand out even if he hadn't amassed more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdown receptions in the NFL. But he's still stunned when people identify him in quiet Elk Grove, Calif.

"How the heck?" Johnson said in disbelief. "But for the most part I'm just a regular dude out here. Nobody recognizes me as playing for the Buffalo Bills."

Johnson is keenly aware of his place in the universe. He's kind of a big deal yet refuses to act like it, regardless of how much he (mostly) enjoyed a wild breakout season.

Johnson caught 82 passes and threatened Buffalo's touchdown record. His stats plus a $470,000 base salary earned him the Vizio Top Value Performer Award. He's entering the final year of his contract. The Bills would be wise to make signing him to an extension a priority as soon as the collective bargaining agreement is settled.

But as the stepson of a noted Bay Area music producer, Johnson knows well enough to avoid being a one-hit wonder. He doesn't want his production or the Bills' record to regress.

"It's still only one season," Johnson said. "I'm eager to get back out there and do more and be better than last year. I really want to make a huge impact. I don't want to slip or fall off. I want to come back ready and do my part."

That's why Johnson has declared personal goals for 2011. He wants to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions and gain at least 1,000 yards. His reception total doesn't matter much. DeSean Jackson proved what kind of damage a receiver can do with 47 catches and a 22.5-yard average.

But Johnson adds the organization's primary objective is one he can embrace: closing out games.

The Bills built momentum heading into the offseason with four victories in their last eight games. An admirable finish was overshadowed by their 0-8 start. Their 4-12 record earned them last place in the AFC East.

The Bills can find a modicum of solace in the ones that got away. They took three playoff teams into overtime -- two on the road -- before losing by a sudden-death field goal to the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers. They also lost by three points to the Chicago Bears.

"We've seen what we can do," Johnson said. "We've seen we can play with the elite teams. We just have to finish games. That'll be built once we all get together. It's a mentality we have to have."

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson's drop against the Steelers erased what would have been the Bills' third straight win.
Johnson is aware some of that responsibility falls on him because of the pass that fell through his hands. Johnson's infamous overtime drop in the end zone against the Steelers turned a third consecutive victory into another heartbreaking defeat.

Johnson went into that game scalding hot. He'd become a national media sensation, scoring nine touchdowns in the previous eight games. He had three touchdowns in an outrageous 49-31 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals a week earlier. In that game, he revealed an undershirt with the handwritten message "Why So Serious?" scrawled in homage to the Joker, spoiling Cincinnati's self-proclaimed Batman and Robin (Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco).

Then he was quickly reminded how fickle the NFL and public sentiment can be.

Right after Johnson dropped the ball and exited Ralph Wilson Stadium, he tweeted a note that seemed to question God, creating a national mainstream media uproar that was debated on "The View" and CNN.com.

"It doesn't stick out, but who can forget it?" Johnson said. "I can't wake up and think 'Man, I don't even remember what happened!' I wish that could happen. I was the main reason we lost. It's not affecting me at all, but it's going to make me work harder."

Johnson conceded the NFL's labor situation could hurt the Bills more than others. The Bills are a young team with newer coaches. If a prolonged lockout erases offseason workouts or compresses training camp, then the Bills would suffer.

"It can affect us in a bad way," Johnson said. "Record-wise, we're coming off a bad season, but we saw some growth and maturity in young guys.

"We're expecting the season right away, that we're going to have OTAs and come to work at training camp. We'll be rocking. But if we have a long lockout, guys might start thinking 'I don't know if we're going to be working. Maybe I should just chill. We ain't got practice. We'll just kick it.'"

Johnson claimed he's motivated to stay in shape. Even with a lockout, players must be ready to roll as soon as there's a new CBA, and it can happen any day. Players are trying to motivate one another to stay on task through phone calls, e-mails, text messages and tweets.

But the Bills haven't arranged any informal lockout practices with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Lee Evans or the rest of the gang. Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne revealed two weeks ago he and some teammates already have a workout location and sessions scheduled for a lockout. New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez convened his "Jets West" camp last summer in California.

"It's good to work out and all, but once we get on the practice field or whatever, I think we'll still be cool," Johnson said. "I guess it's the mentality you have. You can go all offseason and not work out but come in with the mentality you're ready to prepare. Then I think you'll be all right.

"So whether we have full workout sessions with the groups or the team, you've still got to perform. Games are in September and guys are professionals. They'll all be working on their craft."

In the meantime, Johnson has signed up 3-year-old daughter Miyah for T-ball. In the event of a lockout, he's looking forward to maximizing time with family.

"We still have a mission: As soon as the lockout is over, we have to get to work and put up some W's for the Buffalo Bills," Johnson said.