SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Stevie Johnson sat at a Hooters on Tuesday night, a strawberry lemonade in his right hand, a just-got-paid smile on his face. Then, with one glance at his iPhone, the Buffalo Bills' newly minted receiver took an emotional trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
"Looks like he's leaving town," Johnson said, referring to a report that defensive end Mario Williams, the (non-Peyton) prize of this year's free-agent class, would depart Buffalo the following day and visit other potential suitors. "That can't be good."
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Johnson, a pivotal player for the NFL franchise that leads the 21st century in futility, had good reason to get caught up in his team's pursuit of one of the NFL's most feared pursuers of quarterbacks. Certainly, the addition of a 6-foot-6, 283-pound pass-rushing menace in his prime would be a boon to the Bills' defense – but that wasn't Johnson's only motivation. He knew the arrival of a marquee player like Williams would send a message to the pro football world that Buffalo is no joke.
Thirty-six hours later, the joke was on those of us prone to getting a few laughs at the Bills' expense. With the news that Williams – who never ended up leaving Buffalo after all – had signed a six-year, $100-million contract with the club, the Bills had become the it team of the 2012 offseason.
And while their dreams may be more modest than those of last year's Philadelphia Eagles, Johnson and his teammates believe they're poised, at long last, to end the NFL's longest postseason drought, which dates back to the 1999 season and the misery of the Music City Miracle.
"I don't see any way we don't make the playoffs this year, I really don't," Buffalo linebacker Nick Barnett said Thursday night from Arizona, where he makes his offseason home. "If we stay healthy, there's no way you can keep this team out."
Added Johnson: "Signing Mario doesn't automatically put wins on our record. But it definitely changes the mindset of other players around the league. You hear, 'Nobody really comes to Buffalo.' But we just showed you that we can land someone like Mario, and that's huge. That's part of building something big."
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The Bills' concerted push for relevance began earlier this month when the team signed Johnson, a fifth-year receiver on the verge of stardom, to a reported five-year, $36.25-million contract a week before the start of free agency. The Bills could have applied the franchise tag to Johnson, but getting the deal done sent a signal that a new, aggressive era had begun.
"You've got to look at the whole [month] and ask, 'Who made the biggest moves this offseason?' " defensive end Shawne Merriman said late Thursday night. "They're working on a deal for Freddie [Jackson, the team's versatile running back], too. We're making moves in the right direction.
"Signing Mario, that makes a huge statement. When I came to Buffalo [in November of 2010], Buddy [Nix, the team's general manager] said, 'You come here, we're going to turn this thing around, and we're gonna act fast.' Well, they acted. There's a real buzz. It's gonna be a great year."
Of course, pro football being a bottom-line business, Merriman understands that there's no guarantee he'll be part of the Bills' 2012 playoff push. On Monday, the organization must decide whether to pay the former Pro Bowl player a $1 million roster bonus or allow him to become a free agent.
Merriman has played just five games since the Bills claimed him off waivers from the San Diego Chargers and underwent season-ending surgery on his Achilles tendon last October. The pass-rushing menace who led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2006 – the same year the Houston Texans made Williams the No. 1 overall pick in the draft – believes he has finally overcome a series of health problems that sent his career on a downward trajectory.
"People have seen me play on one leg for going on three years now," Merriman said. "So it's gonna be a good season. People talk about our switch to a 4-3 [defense], but that's not a factor. For the people who know football, the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 is whether my hand's down or I stand up – that's all it is. I want to stay. Whether I stay or not, honestly, that's almost impossible to figure out."
From a football perspective, it's not hard to figure out Merriman's motivation. The Bills' defensive line could feature a pair of prolific tackles (2010 Pro Bowl selection Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick of last year's draft) bracketed by bookend pass rushers in Williams and Merriman. That's the kind of potentially dominant unit that kicks butt and provokes nicknames.
The thought of playing Robin to Williams' Batman – as Shaun Phillips once did to Merriman in San Diego, enjoying the benefits of less attention from blockers on the backside – has Merriman envisioning a Lights Out revival.
"Oh [expletive], that would be nice," he said, laughing. "As far as Mario, he's a dominant player. There are a lot of good, impactful players, but not many I'd call dominant. He's one of the few. It's gonna cause a lot of problems for offenses."
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Now comes the obligatory cold-shower moment in the column when I am journalistically obligated to provide unwelcome perspective. As with the Eagles last year (the Dream Team had its fans in cold sweats by midseason) and the Washington Redskins so many times in years past, winning the offseason does not necessarily translate to victories on the field.
As Johnson said Thursday, "This is only one part of an NFL season. We've got to carry this through and be that team when the games begin."
That said, if any NFL fan base deserves some excitement in March, it's the long-suffering folks of Western New York. The four consecutive Super Bowl defeats in the '90s are but a distant memory; many Bills fans would probably consider cutting off a finger for the opportunity to fall just short of a championship in 2012.
I remember the excitement nearly a decade ago when Buffalo traded for Drew Bledsoe after the star quarterback, following a serious injury, had been supplanted by young Tom Brady during the New England Patriots' first championship run. I spent a couple of days checking out the town with Drew and his wife, Maura, and saw the way the locals swooned with excitement; a marching band even played the Washington State fight song for the former Cougars as they arrived at the team's training facility in Orchard Park.
Bledsoe, however, couldn't lead the Bills to the playoffs. No one has, since 1999. The Detroit Lions – who'd endured an identical stretch of playoff-free seasons – finally reached the postseason in 2011, leaving Buffalo as the lone Oh-for-21st-century franchise.
"Seeing Detroit make it, it's just like it showed us, it can happen," Johnson said. "They went 0-16 [in 2008], and you see them in the playoffs, you think, 'In this league, things can turn that fast. Why not us?' "
The Bills thought they were postseason bound last fall after winning their first three games – including a dramatic comeback triumph over the Pats at Ralph Wilson Stadium that ended a 15-game losing streak to their AFC East rivals – and finishing October with a 5-2 record. Then injuries, most notably to Jackson, contributed to a seven-game losing streak that eviscerated any semblance of progress.
That helps explain why the franchise was so eager to make a splash in free agency. From a perception standpoint, failing to do so would have been a nightmare.
"That's a big grab with Mario," Johnson said. "Otherwise, we feel like we could have swung and missed on free agency."
This time, however, the Bills connected, and the stars seemed to be aligned in their favor.
"It's a good thing the weather was nice," Johnson said. "And keeping him there was big. If he'd left [without a contract], I felt like, 'Oh, man, he'll probably be gone.' "
Said Barnett, who signed a three-year, $12-million deal with the Bills last summer after eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers: "They wouldn't let me leave, either. When it got late on the day I was visiting, they said, 'You can stay here. We'll put you up at a hotel. If you need family flown in, we can do that.' It's a smart strategy. You think, 'I like this organization!' "
Just as Reggie White's surprising 1993 signing with the Packers dispelled the notion that hot free agents would shy away from frigid, non-cosmopolitan Green Bay at all costs, Williams' willingness to relocate to Buffalo was a godsend from a branding perspective. And for the folks who already live there – well, good luck containing their excitement.
Johnson learned the news of Williams' signing Thursday via text message from his friend Mike Rowcroft, a.k.a. Homeslice. Shortly after the Bills selected Johnson in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL draft, the receiver connected with Rowcroft via Myspace – and no, that is not a sentence you will likely read in regard to future NFL players – and they met during his first trip to Buffalo.
"We went to Dave And Busters, and we've been hanging out ever since," Johnson said of Rowcroft, a middle school substitute teacher and part-time supermarket employee. "He's a diehard – he paints his face and everything. And he's going nuts right now. He's probably got his face painted in the classroom with the kids, throwing a party as we speak. If there was a test [Thursday], he canceled it."
Later Thursday evening, Johnson forwarded me a text from Rowcroft: "Is that Brady I hear crying for a penalty before he's even played us?"
Yeah, Homeslice is ready for the season to start today. Rest assured he has plenty of company.
"My Twitter feed's been blowing up from the fans," Barnett said. "Trust me, they're already tailgating at the stadium right now. I'm going back there [Friday] night, and I'll see a lot of smiles. Now imagine if we had a home playoff game at The Ralph …"
Forgive Barnett for looking ahead; this has been a big week in Buffalo. The Bills may not be the Dream Team – but in the wake of Williams' singing, their fans and players can dare to dream.
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