Sitting on the visitor's bench at Gillette Stadium last Jan. 1, having been sent there by coach Chan Gailey for the balance of the Bills' season-ending defeat to the New England Patriots following a New Year's-themed touchdown celebration, the elusive, flamboyant wideout pondered a future far from the Rust Belt.
A native of San Francisco who grew up in the shadow of Candlestick Park, Johnson's rookie contract was set to expire at the start of the new league year in March. As he sat there on that cold afternoon in Foxborough, Mass., watching the Bills blow a three-touchdown lead and lose by 28 points, Johnson stewed about his situation and daydreamed about signing with the 49ers as an unrestricted free agent. He figured his first-quarter benching was a sign that the Bills were fed up with his on-field antics and that the franchise was prepared to move on without him.
"At that point I was thinking I was done with Buffalo," Johnson recalls. "I was like, 'They benched me? Really?' I figured I'd go back to Hunter's Point [to play for the 49ers]. But the [Bills] stepped up and paid me. And it felt so good to be wanted."
Johnson, who signed a five-year, $36.25-million deal with Buffalo shortly before the March deadline for teams to use the franchise tag, now regards the Bills as "no longer just a regular team to me. We're family."
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And as training camp approaches, the fifth-year standout is ready to evolve his role as the talented but exasperating son. Later this week he and other Bills veterans will report to St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., which can't come soon enough for Johnson.
"I'm ready to go, because the walls are closing in at home," he says.
After landing the defensive prize of unrestricted free agency, former Texans defensive end Mario Williams, the Bills believe they're poised to end a 13-year playoff drought. Thanks to the Lions' 2011 postseason appearance, the Bills' stretch now stands alone as the NFL's longest.
"For the most part, the guys who've been Bills the last couple of years, they know that stat," Johnson says. "Seeing the Lions play last year, the way they used to get kicked around and now were the ones doing the kicking, it was motivational. We feel like, 'Now, it's our turn.' I don't mean, 'It's gonna happen,' but if we grind and play to our capabilities, it can happen."
Johnson, fresh off the first back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons in franchise history, wants to make a conspicuous contribution to the cause while avoiding flags and fines.
It's a line he's had trouble walking in the past, but one he feels obligated not to cross in 2012. The fact that the Bills, when negotiating Johnson's new deal, never brought up his late-season benching or his previous end-zone transgressions was a demonstration of faith he plans to honor.
Johnson's quirky bravado is a product of his personality, but it's also a testament to his perseverance. A seventh-round draft pick out of Kentucky in 2008, Johnson was handed nothing, and he treats his unlikely success as an achievement worthy of continuing celebration. He's also making a calculated effort to uplift the spirits of a struggling franchise and its long-suffering fan base.
"It's way more than just me," Johnson says. "When I say we're gonna handle our business and have fun, that means we're gonna score touchdowns and dance afterward and say what we want. That's what I'm trying to bring to Buffalo.
"[Former Patriots defensive end] Mark Anderson signed with us and he told us that after we won our first three games last year, they were all saying, 'It doesn't mean anything. It's still the same old Bills.' This year, we've got to really dominate these teams on and off the field to change that. If we're doing that, and I'm hyping it, then people might look and say, 'Maybe this is the new Bills.' "
Johnson has done his part to uplift the organization on the field, using his pinpoint route-running and quickness after the catch to frustrate defensive backs. "There aren't a lot of guys who can cover him one-on-one," says Bills middle linebacker Nick Barnett.
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"He means a lot to our team – and to me," Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says. "If I see him in single coverage, I feel really good about him getting open."
Even the NFL's undisputed top coverage man, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, has struggled to contain Johnson. While most receivers dread getting sent to Revis Island, Johnson says, "I love the Island. It's like a vacation spot for me."
He certainly does his best to keep things casual at the workplace. For one road trip last season, Johnson cracked up teammates by showing up clad in a sweater vest identical to those habitually worn by the grandfatherly Gailey.
"Steve's gonna be Steve," Barnett says. "He obviously is a different dude. The way he dresses, the way he gets into character – he brings that swag. He's 100-percent Californian, all day, and I think he's one of the funniest dudes in the locker room.
"I love people to celebrate, to be creative, but when it comes to the point where they cost us games, cost us yards, you can't have it. I think he learned a lot and moved forward. That last situation in that last game, I give a lot of respect to the head coach. A lot of people wouldn't have sat their star receiver, especially at that point in a game."
Asked if he enjoys Johnson's celebrations, Fitzpatrick smiled and replied, "I am not allowed to say yes to that question. I think it's one of those things that's behind us, in the past. He's looked at as more of a leader now. He understands his role."
Adds outside linebacker Shawne Merriman: "That's something he'll start to think about as he puts the team's best interest before his. I'm his No. 1 fan. Not only are his celebrations entertaining, but they're creative. This is a game of fun, something we did in our backyards since we were 10 years old. To keep just a little bit of that, it's important. He's just a different cat, in a good way."
At the time of his benching, Johnson wasn't sure he belonged in Buffalo. On that January afternoon, he sat by himself and thought about what life would be like with the talented but run-oriented 49ers, or with other teams who might value his exuberance and expressiveness.
"There definitely was a phase [during the 2011 season] where I was feeling all Buffalo, 100 percent," Johnson recalls. "And [after the benching] it went to, 'I don't know if it's gonna work out. Maybe they want to move on. Maybe I should move on.' But, of course, it worked out that I could stay.
"I like Buffalo. I like the city. I like the fans. I like what we've got going. And I feel like I can be part of something big there."
Seven months after assuming his time in Buffalo was done, Johnson sounds like a lifer. For him and the Bills, this year may turn out to be a happy one after all.
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