Steve Johnson wasn't on the field at all during Monday's chilling loss to New England. Not one play. Instead, he stood flanked to Dick Jauron. In street clothes. Waiting, watching, knowing that he is ready to play right now.
"I know I can compete out there with those guys," Johnson told the BFR. "I'm just ready to show it, show it, show it all and not be held back at all."
The second-year receiver isn't needed yet. He's waiting for his opportunity behind a stacked group of wide receivers. For now, he's a healthy scratch. On an offense evolving in a no-huddle scheme, Johnson is an ideal prospect to mold in the bullpen.
The 6-foot-2 wideout has experience in a spread offense and brings a rare physicality across the middle. He isn't a basketball player playing football. And he isn't a diva. Johnson's a throwback. And he knows this style is something Buffalo fans will fall in love with.
"I just want to bring that extra energy that everybody wants to see and is accustomed to here in Buffalo," he said.
So, for now, he's biding his time. He's a slugger in triple-A waiting to blow up in the bigs. Why? The addition of Terrell Owens. When the Bills pushed all their chips in back in March by signing T.O., Johnson was bumped down on the pecking order. With T.O., Lee Evans, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish still around, Johnson must wait. Parrish wasn't traded as rumored. Buffalo's receiving corps is a jam-packed, New York City subway.
Not that Johnson is complaining about any of it. He understands the circumstances— it's a great problem to have. He's Buffalo's utility man, one step away from playing at any receiver spot any moment.
"My role right now is just backing every position up," Johnson said. "I'm not just at one wide receiver position.
"I'm just ready to break out and do my thing."
Not every receiver is willing to venture between the hash marks. For many, it's the Bermuda Triangle. It takes a certain mentality, a certain background, a certain swagger to risk your body where the linebackers swarm like piranhas.
That's Steve Johnson. He has never been a pampered No. 1 wideout with a five-year plan for the NFL glory. His rugged style is rooted in junior college. At Chabat Junior College, nothing was guaranteed. Johnson never imagined he'd be in the NFL someday.
He thought day-to-day, game-to-game.
Through that experience — playing in front of small crowds for pride (not attention) — a mentality grew.
"You learn to do the things that people won't do," Johnson said. "So why not go over the middle? Why not go make plays and try to turn something small into something big? You have to do that."
Johnson dominated at Chabat, earning a ticket to Kentucky. After one season as a reserve, he broke out as senior for 1,052 yards and 13 touchdowns. With the Wildcats, Johnson noticed he approached the game differently than others. Johnson and couple other JUCO players always did a little extra. More time in the film room, more time in the weight room, more commitment, etc.
As Kentucky struggled in the SEC, Johnson remembers looking around and not seeing that same hunger in non-JUCOs.
"Some of the kids that went straight to Kentucky were more lax," Johnson said. "They were more lackadaisical. I knew what to do and the right times to do it."
As a result, Johnson was picked in the seventh round by Buffalo. The impact was instant. Johnson was not stashed away on the practice squad. In seven games, he caught 10 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns — clearly outplaying Buffalo's second-round pick, James Hardy.
Steve Johnson flashed plenty of potential last season.
Johnson provided glimpses of his rugged, on-field attitude against Cleveland on Monday night and then again in Buffalo's heartbreaking loss in the Meadowlands. Not to mention, one of the coolest, most classic touchdown celebrations.
Johnson was given an appetizer last year, some clam chowder before the main entrée sure to come in year two. Instead, the team signed T.O., thus delaying Johnson's ascension in the offense. But Owens' arrival could have beneficial long-term implications. Growing up in San Francisco, Johnson was an avid 49ers fan. He saw T.O.'s rise firsthand.
Now, he's working with him every day.
"I was never expecting to be in the same meeting room as Terrell Owens," Johnson said. "He's the ultimate playmaker and I've been able to go out there and watch him perfect his craft."
If this no-huddle offense sticks around for a while — and by the looks of Monday night, it should — Johnson could be a long-term fixture. The spread offense he ran at Kentucky engrained basic, hurry-up principles Buffalo uses. The Wildcats routinely walked up to the line with multiple plays in mind.
Quarterback Andre Woodson, Johnson and co. would recognize the defense, look over to the sideline and run whichever play worked best. Nearly every play was on a whim, much like the Bills' current offense. They found a soft spot and attacked.
"It was kind of like a no-huddle," Johnson said. "So it was easy to adjust from Kentucky to Buffalo."
The Bills' no-huddle offense was a wreck all preseason. After the first-offense produced zero touchdowns in 15 offensive possessions, Jauron fired his offensive coordinator 10 days before the opener. The news came hard and fast.
At that moment, Johnson discovered that the NFL truly stands for "Not For Long."
"Yeah, yeah it did surprise me," Johnson said. "I'm still young in this league. So that was pretty crazy to see him there one day and the next day he's not. That's just the business. That's what we're a part of."
Which is why Johnson wants his chance. Now. He's ready to go across the middle and be a key piston in Buffalo's no-huddle offense. During the preseason, Johnson noticed cornerbacks huffing and puffing across from him. He's built for this.
When Johnson finally does become a part of Buffalo's new offense is unknown. Barring injury or ineffectiveness, he'll have to keep waiting.
At some point, he knows Jauron will give him the green light.
"I've been putting in a lot of work man," he said. "Coaches are really high on me. So I'm just going to wait my turn and see where it goes."
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of BuffaloFootballReport.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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