Stevie Johnson might not have the most 1,000-yard receiving seasons in a Bills career, but he's getting closer to all-time leading receiver Andre Reed and number two on that list, Eric Moulds. Reed and Moulds account for almost half of the franchise's 18 1,000-yard receiving seasons as they both have four apiece. But Johnson is the only Bills receiver to post back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns (2010, 2011) and is now on pace to three-peat.
Johnson has 891 receiving yards through the first 14 games, so he needs just 109 receiving yards over the final two games to make it three straight 1,000-yard seasons. With the postseason no longer something to shoot for in 2012, Johnson has slightly altered his priority list.
"It's the motivation for now," Johnson told Buffalobills.com. "First it was get to the playoffs, now since that's out of the picture. Now it's two things really, playing for my coaches, playing for my teammates and a thousand yards. Being the only receiver to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons would be cool. That's what it's come to."
Last year Johnson went over the 1,000-yard mark in the season finale at New England on an 18-yard touchdown catch, but after revealing a happy New Year's wish with his undershirt in the end zone he was flagged and benched.
There hasn't been any penalty-inducing celebrations this season for Johnson, a receiver that has matured not only as a player, but emerged as a team leader in 2012.
"He's developing into that role as a leader, not only of the receiver group, but a leader on the team and on our offense," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "No longer do we have Lee Evans or whoever it is, guys that he used to looked up to, to make the big play, to do all that stuff to get us going—Stevie realizes that that's him. He's going to be the guy that has to do something unbelievable."
Johnson's latest example was his leaping, twisting, one-handed catch early in the third quarter to convert a 3rd-and-20 deep in Buffalo's end to extend a drive down 17 to Seattle. For Johnson it's how he intends to play no matter what the scoreboard says or what Buffalo's won-loss record might be.
"It's just hope. Playing for hope, for my teammates, for the fans, for them to see that there's still hope," he said. "It may seem sort of weak, but that's what it is. We're not playing for the playoffs man, but you still turn on the channel and the Bills are still your team. You still can watch and say, 'That kid is still playing. That guy out there is playing.' So it's something to play for still, for the fans."
"This is my eighth year in the league, and I haven't seen too many like that," said Fitzpatrick of the catch that landed Johnson at the top of the ESPN Sportscenter Top 10 Plays for the NFL in Week 15. "I think he understands that. It's been good to see him develop into that role and really understand that he's a guy that has to step up and make the big play and when things aren't going well, he's one of the guys for us that can turn the momentum."
Johnson has been doubled a lot in 2012, but his development as a receiver has lifted his game to a point where he can't be taken away by certain coverages any longer. That's why he's stepping into the huddle and pressing Fitzpatrick to get him the ball, much the way Reed and Moulds did years ago.
"I think everybody knows I'm not doing things for myself. It's all for team," Johnson told Buffalobills.com. "At this point it doesn't matter what the coverages are. You know what I'm about and I know what you're about. What's stopping us? Let's go. Let's do what we're supposed to do. We're here to make plays so go with me. That's pretty much how I felt. That's why it doesn't matter what they play, double, zone, triple, let's go."
Head coach Chan Gailey in the last week has said publicly that if the team is able to land a big time receiver to line up outside, he'd like to move Johnson inside to the slot feeling he could be even more dangerous there. Johnson's unconventional route running often gives cornerbacks fits. To give him a two-way go working out of the slot would make him virtually unstoppable.
"I'm all for it. Wherever he wants to put me," said Johnson of Gailey. "He had me in the backfield, coming out of the backfield to the slot (in the Houston game). I'm all for it. I've got confidence in the playbook. If he says I'll be playing the slot then I'll be looking at the slot receivers and trying to learn their moves and mix it with mine and try to take over the league like that. How are they going to play me now if I can go left or go right or right down the middle? I think it would be something cool for our offense."
And that's always been Johnson's approach. If it's going to translate into more production for Buffalo's attack, he's on board. Johnson just hopes his play and efforts as a leader can help lift the play of others and push the team to more victories in 2013.
"I guess hold each other accountable and just come out and just work it," said Johnson of what it will take to turn the franchise's fortunes around. "We can't be settling as if we're that playoff team that we always talk about being. We won five games and that's got to be motivating alone. We only won five games. Come on y'all let's step it up.
"I'm going to do what I can to do my part and hopefully win these last two games and we have another run next year. I seriously believe we're building something here."