I remember watching the Jets/Bills game back in Week 9 of the 2008 season. It was coming down to the end of the 2nd quarter and the Bills were in the red zone knocking on the Jets’ door. What happens? I see Stevie Johnson toast Darrelle Revis of the Jets for a touchdown. He put on this nifty move and broke to the inside sealing the deal. Watching that play, I’m thinking … keep an eye on this kid. That was a pretty sweet move on a pretty talented young corner and it looks like there’s some promise there.
Well, it didn’t exactly happen very quickly. Fast forwarding past the next two years where Stevie struggled to produce (he had a total of 12 catches for a little over 100 yards in ’08 and ’09) and we finally saw him get the opportunity to show his talent.
In the first few weeks of the 2010 season, he didn’t put up big numbers, but broke out after the bye in a Week 7 game against the Ravens. Soon after, Stevie and Ryan Fitzpatrick were unconscious and hitting their stride in a mid-season stretch where they posted astronomical numbers. That run was made all the more memorable by his overtime drop against the Steelers in Week 12 and his three touchdown game against Batman and Robin (Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco) where Stevie played the Joker with his “Why so serious?” TD celebration.
I recently spent some time with Stevie talking about his breakout season, the Bills’ future, playing in Coach Chan Gailey’s offense, and I picked his brain about a couple of the young Bills, CJ Spiller and Marcus Easley.
Steve Wyremski (SW): What’s going on? How’s the offseason treating you?
Stevie Johnson (SJ): I mean, shoot. Besides working out individually or with some of the guys around the area, I’ve been down the highway with the family and just relaxing for the most part. [I’m] just trying to stay mentally ready because any day we could be called to move forward towards training camp.
SW: Stevie, in high school you were only able to play football for two years since the school didn’t have the sport until your junior year. You then went to a JUCO school from there before heading over to Kentucky. The Bills take you in the 7th round and you really didn’t put up numbers until your 3rd season, last year. Did the fact that you went to a JUCO and only the two years of high school football slow down your development as a receiver at all?
SJ: In high school, I didn’t even play receiver. I just started playing receiver when I went to junior college. To me, it really didn’t matter. I really didn’t think of it that way as far as being a receiver your whole life [and because of it] you know the techniques or the basics. Playing football in the street, everyone’s a wide receiver. You’ve got one quarterback and everyone else is playing receiver. That’s just natural ability to go out there and run those routes and all that stuff. Playing basketball helped out also.
[With] the development and all that, I’m confident and I believe everyone should be learning no matter what they accomplish. It all plays a part from street ball to high school to junior college or division one college. Everyone should be consistently learning their trade.
SW: After the breakout year last season, is there something in particular where you sit down and watch tape you’re like, “Shoot. I really got to start improving on that.” Anything in particular that you may be working on?
SJ: Everything. I wasn’t the number one receiver in the NFL. If you ain’t number one, you still got a lot of areas to work on (and you do even if you were number one). [You need to work on everything] from the run game, to seeing coverages, to blocking for our guys, catching the ball, particular routes and everything. If you want to be one of the best, you gotta work on everything. It’s not saying you’re going to be perfect. No player/athlete is perfect, but it’s always having that grind or that will to work.
SW: Last year in your breakout year, you went for 82 catches for 1,072 yards and 10 TDs. Looking back at some of your comments after the season, you credit Chan Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick for your success. In particular, you said that Gailey gives you freedom and doesn’t tell you to do things a certain way. Can you unpack that a little bit and explain what you meant by that?
SJ: Yeah, well I’ve talked to guys that play on other teams and they say, “oh, when we run our comeback or we run our in-cuts, he wants us to do 1-2-3 and in, or go 15 and come in straight line.” Coach Gailey was totally opposite. My style is herky-jerky anyway so when I’m running I’m kinda swerving a little bit just trying to beat the man. Coach Gailey always says, “Get where you’re going to get, make sure you’re on track with the quarterback, and just beat the man.” He gave us freedom to run our routes how we wanted to whether it was making a stop and go on a comeback instead of going straight to the comeback. He gave us freedom to work things. If you make a mistake a couple of times, he’d take that freedom away, but for the most part it went well.
SW: [Explain PFF]. I want to test our individual ratings of games in 2010 a little bit. Looking at your game by game breakdown, is there a particular game that you would rank higher than others? If I were to ask you which game that would be, what would you say and why?
SJ: The game I would rank highest would maybe be the Chicago Bears game. The first half, I don’t think I even had a catch and I ended up with 130 [yards] or something like that. All my yards were in the 2nd half and I believe 8 catches. I didn’t have any touchdowns at all, but I felt I helped out the team to get a little closer to that win.
SW: That one we had in your Top 3. The highest one happened to be your highest statistical game which came against Cincinnati. You had a stretch of games there where you were absolutely dominant, but in that game you caught 80% of your targets and obviously the 3 TDs helped.
In 2010, you started Week 1 against the Dolphins and played 90% of the team’s snaps in that game. From Week 2 to 5, you lost a little bit of playing time and played anywhere between 68% and 82% of the team’s snaps. During that time, you were also benched in favor of Roscoe Parrish. Week 6 was the team’s bye and then from Week 7 you started every game for the remainder of the season and consistently played 95% of snaps. What happened for you after the bye? It seems like something just clicked.
SJ: I would say that we just had a lot more time to get together as a unit with Roscoe [Parrish], Lee [Evans], David [Nelson] and even Donald [Jones] getting into the mix with [Ryan]Fitzpatrick. We all ended up working as a unit. If I was doubled, Lee or Roscoe would be open and we started playing for each other. The end of the games didn’t come out how we wanted it to, but we came together more as a unit instead of being individuals and worrying about our own stats. Then Fitzpatrick made a big difference sharing the ball and spreading it around giving everybody opportunities. I think our quarterback had a lot to do with that.
SW: As I mentioned, you had a block of games, Weeks 7 to 12 (6 games) where you just lit it up. You had 3 games with over 130 yards and you had that Cincinnati game in there with 3 TDs. What was going on those few weeks?
SJ: Everybody talks about who I was playing against or how good so and so is. I don’t really pay attention to the guys I’m going against. I worry about our game plan and what we can do. I believe one of the first guys was Fabian Washington. They were talking about how he would get in your head talking, this and that, so I was like, “Ok, we got one of these top level cornerbacks on a great defense and if you can [produce] against the Ravens, you belong in this league.” It’s the NFL, though. You’ve got to come every week no matter who the cornerback is and what the game plan is, and bring your A-game.
[My season] last year was probably a good year for everybody else, but I don’t feel like it was that big. I feel like it could have been way better, but it is what it is. I’m grateful for it, but at the same time there was a lot left out there on the field. It wasn’t that big to me.
SW: So when you say there was a lot left on the field, what are you referring to? I know you led the league in drops.
SJ: Well, the first three games of the season I only had 30 yards. Three catches with 30 yards. There were other games where I had 50 or 60. I feel like I can get 100 every game. Dropped passes … I can’t do too much about that. Everybody is going to have some drops. The drops I had against Pittsburgh, [that game] I had 7 or 8 catches for like 70 yards and 5 [drops]. If I’d made those catches, I’d have had like 12 catches for 120/130-something yards. You know what I’m saying?
There was a lot that could have been done. I only had 1,000-something yards. I want to get 1,100 yards to be with those top receivers. The 10 touchdowns? That’s big right there, but I feel like it coulda been more. The leader was Bowe. I believe he had like 15 or 16 [touchdowns]. I’m five away and feel like I coulda had more. It’s just continuous work. I feel like I can do it all the time. I know that’s hard to come by [to consistently produce over 1,000 yards and a high number of TDs], but there’s just a mentality to have especially being in Buffalo where nobody’s giving us credit or any kind of lenience at all as far as being a good team in the NFL. I feel like this is the type of attitude you’ve got to have to try and put the team back on top.
SW: How is it playing out there in Buffalo? Like you mentioned, the team hasn’t been to the playoffs in double digit seasons.
SJ: The fans are still down for you. It’s easy to suit up every week even though you haven’t been to the playoffs in a while. It’s like if the fans still care and they still come to see the team, you can’t give up on them. They’re sitting out in the cold, cheering for [us despite] coming in at 4-12. It’s easy to play for fans like that. At the same time, I’d rather build a dynasty than to join one. I said it before on the Twitter handle and I go by it. That’s why I went to the University of Kentucky. It was a team that was down and we end up turning it around. Hopefully we can do the same thing in Buffalo. I’ve got a lot of faith in our guys and I feel like we can turn this thing around.
SW: You say that you can turn this around and you’ve previously said to others that the team had turned the corner. What do you think needs to happen with the Bills as a team to get back to the playoffs?
SJ: We gotta come together as one unit. I talked to Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and I was asking how the locker room is. [They] almost got to the finals and had a great season, so [I asked] what the difference was and how [they] did it. He was just telling me that everybody plays for each other. Nobody’s worried about the individual things, how much this person’s making, or what he’s trying to get to make money. It was nothing like that and people were all for one.
That’s what we have to do and I believe last year was huge. Even though we had a bad record, what we’ve been through showed from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows. Like Lee Evans … he’s one of the top threats in the league. He can kill anybody, but he didn’t have one of those seasons that everybody expected out of him. We’ve seen him at his low. We’ve seen me at my low. It’s like, what do we have to hide? Let’s all work together, forget about the numbers, and try to get “W”s.
SW: Do you think the personnel is in place on both sides of the ball to get you there?
SJ: I believe so. We had a pretty good draft. We basically went all defense. It kind of puts some pressure on the offense because we didn’t go after any receivers or anything. We haven’t had free agency yet, but we didn’t go after any receivers or quarterbacks. It’s like, we beefed up the defense and now [the offense] needs to do what we did last year. It’s pressure, but it’s good pressure. This is what we’re here for and this is our job. We’re up for it.
SW: Going back to the discussion on that Pittsburgh game, you mentioned the five drops. The following week against Minnesota, you seemed to struggle a bit and you didn’t see all that many targets. You had four total targets. Was there a bit of a hangover mentally from the Pittsburgh drops and the big drop?
SJ: Honestly, yeah. It kind of lingered over. I was out there thinking about every route I was running instead of just going out there and running. I got caught up in the media hype and, yeah, it hung over a little bit. It passed by the end of the game, but it did hang over a little.
SW: Going back to that big chunk of games where you blew up … after that, and from Week 13 to Week 17, you didn’t break the 100 yard mark again. Was there a change in the way defenses planned for you?
SJ: Probably. I can’t say yeah and I can’t say no because I didn’t really think of it like that. My only time with big games was between those 7 to 12 weeks. When I started off [the season], I didn’t have 100 [yards]. I can’t call it; it was just all in our game plan. How the game plan went determined how our stats turned out. Those big games (especially with the Ravens game) were straight man coverage. We knew how they were playing their defense, so we ran certain routes and it just so happens that I caught a few passes to get a few more yards, but Lee [Evans] had like three touchdowns. Then later on in the season, Rock ended up getting injured in the Bears game, so that took away one of our threats. It’s harder when you have one of your threats on the bench. It’s just you and another guy, which is 83 [Lee Evans].
I don’t know how that all plays out. It’s just how we call the plays. If we make it happen, then we make it happen. We’re just out there playing.
SW: So you didn’t see more double teams or safety help over the top after those big games?
SJ: I mean, yeah, I felt it and I [saw] it but everybody’s getting that. I’m pretty sure Lee [Evans] got the double coverage. Guys like Terrell Owens get double coverage. Everybody gets it. Yeah, I’ve seen it. Once they start putting the shell over the two outside guys, it’s on those inside guys to start making plays. That’s what the adjustment had to be, so that could be it or we start running the ball a little bit or set up screens. [If] they double team on the outside, our inside guys will get the ball and more yards and we start running the ball up the middle to establish the run game.
SW: I want to talk a little bit about Marcus Easley. I know you guys were out at Camp Fitz back a few months ago. I loved the guy coming out of UConn last year before he got injured. I saw you said positive things about him a number of weeks back. We then see Ryan Fitzpatrick saying glowing things about him, as well. What’s going on with him?
SJ: He’s getting comfortable. He really hasn’t played a down in the NFL. There’s a time when you get on the field and you get comfortable just practicing. Then you got to start your first game, you’ve got to get comfortable on the field on Sunday. I just feel like he’s breaking down that wall as far as being comfortable practicing with the NFL guys (his teammates). He just looks good. The first time coming in, he was a little stiff and running basic routes (like a said earlier, running a straight comeback). Now he’s seeing how we work it and seeing the freedom that he has. When I [saw] him at Camp Fitz it was like a whole different player. He was more fluid [and] he wasn’t as stiff. It was crazy. Seeing how big he is with the speed he possesses is crazy. He should be a threat also.
I can’t say he’s going to blow up this year, but as soon as he gets comfortable and gets that feel for the game, I believe he will be another threat for the Buffalo Bills. Hopefully that works out and we see what Easley’s about this year.
SW: Now, the Bills and their fans remember another receiver who bust on to the scene in 2002 – Peerless Price. He had over 90 catches and 1,200 yards. He never reached 1,000 again. Is that in the back of your mind and concern you going into 2011?
SJ: No, it doesn’t concern me going into 2011, but I think about it. Just like every quarterback with 30 plus TDs. What if I never get back there again? It just makes you work. It’s not [something] that I stress over, but it’s something that I do think about. What if I don’t get to 1,000 yards again? Ok, let’s go out here and try and make sure we get that. That’s basically it. It’s nothing huge or major. [If] I cannot have over 1,000 yards and we have a winning season and I contribute a lot to the team, [that’s all that matters]. I know how fantasy is now-a-days … they want you to get the yards and points.
SW: Throughout the NFL draft process and the entire offseason people continue to speculate that the Bills will draft or sign a quarterback when and if free agency opens. As you mentioned, it didn’t happen in the draft. Fitzpatrick just finished with over 3,000 yards and 23 TDs in 13 games. Throughout the offseason and the season, you continue to be a big supporter of Fitzpatrick. Why do you believe he’s the best fit in Buffalo?
SJ: Because of the numbers he put up, and how he came in after 4/5 games and turned the whole team around as far as the mentality. He’s a better person in the locker room and in the huddle than people can really see. He’s versatile with everybody. He can talk to anyone on the team. He’s a very cool dude and I know that won’t win games talking to everyone in the locker room, but [because] of his personality everyone wants to work for him.
As far as the quarterback situation, yeah we might go and get a quarterback. It’s only him and Levi Brown. So, yeah, I believe we will go get a quarterback, but at the same time I’m riding with Fitz. I’m pretty sure every other receiver, running back, and lineman on the offensive side is riding with Fitzpatrick. That’s that. He’s our quarterback this season and hopefully he stays as quarterback.
SW: CJ Spiller – There were big hopes for him in 2010 especially after the preseason that he had, but he struggled a bit in his rookie season. Soon after the season, Coach Gailey put a lot of blame for Spiller’s season on himself saying that he needed to create ways to better use CJ. From what you’ve seen in practice, what do you think CJ needs to do in order to be a starter and successful in this league?
SJ: Everything that he’s been doing. It’s hard for a guy to come in at [pick] #8 or #9 overall and explode and be everything that he was in college. It’s not college; it’s the NFL. He’s doing everything. He works hard in the weight room, he works hard on the practice field, he has blazing speed, [and] his instincts are great. He just has to get used to playing in the NFL and at NFL speed. He has to find his mode.
Preseason is totally different from the season. Anybody can tell you that. You can lead the team in everything in the preseason, but once the regular season starts things are different. He’s good. He’s on the right track. It’s a lot expected out of a guy being drafted that high. Last year is last year. I’m pretty sure he’ll do good this year. The coaches know how to work him and use him, so he should have a pretty explosive season.
You know what the biggest thing I took from my chat with Stevie is? The guy just loves to play football and is having a ton of fun. With that successful individual season, he isn’t satisfied. Not only that, but he’s taking steps to improve by talking with other professional athletes about the culture of their team and heading out to Camp Fitz with his fellow Bills’ receivers. From everything he’s doing, it sounds like Stevie is developing into a leader and it sounds like things in the AFC East are about get even more interesting.