ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Stevie Johnson isn’t ready to relinquish his title as the Buffalo Bills No. 1 receiver.
During a season in which his numbers are slipping and critics growing, Johnson is eager to prove his doubters wrong.
“There’s a lot of people watching me, and I’m going through a year where maybe a lot was expected, and I expected a lot from myself,” Johnson said Wednesday. “It’s OK, because I’m climbing still. I’m still working trying to get to the top. I’ve got to make them love me again.”
That’s going to take some doing for a sixth-year player who has had very little go right this season.
Johnson’s offseason got off to a terrible start when he was sidelined by a back injury. The regular season hasn’t gone much better. Johnson has been sidetracked by an assortment of injuries, a lack of chemistry with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and a series of miscues.
From dropped passes to a costly fumble that contributed to a 34-31 overtime loss to Atlanta two weeks ago, Johnson has endured a big dip in production.
That’s led him to become the target of fan discontent during recent weeks, leaving open questions regarding Johnson’s future in Buffalo beyond this season, and whether he’s worth the five-year, $36.25 million contract extension he signed in 2012.
Johnson has no designs of being anywhere but back in Buffalo next year.
“I started off with a goal here, and I want to complete it,” Johnson said. “If I was to be out of here before I complete that goal, I’d be (ticked) off, man, at myself because I let myself down, I let the fans down and ultimately my family because they settled in here.”
Johnson’s goal is to lead the Bills into the playoffs. That’s an objective that will likely fall short with Buffalo (4-9) all but mathematically eliminated from postseason contention for a 14th straight season.
The Bills, who play at Jacksonville (4-9) on Sunday, are left seeking to end their season on a high note.
And that includes Johnson.
“I’m still here,” he said. “And as long as I’m here, I’m going to hustle. That’s it. That’s all I can do.”
Johnson leads the Bills with 593 yards receiving and has three touchdowns.
That’s a significant drop for a player who topped 1,000 yards in each of his past three seasons, and combined for 23 touchdowns over that stretch.
Not all of the blame falls on Johnson.
He’s the senior member of member of a raw group of receivers who have shown familiar signs of inconsistency in making the jump from college to the NFL.
And they’ve all had to become accustomed to working with Manuel, the team’s first-round draft pick. Manuel has been prone to his own struggles, and had his development stalled after missing two weeks of training camp and four weeks of the season because of separate knee injuries.
Coach Doug Marrone said it’s difficult to judge Johnson’s production given Manuel’s inconsistencies.
“We have a young quarterback and we’ve got to keep that coming,” Marrone said. “Consistency, that’s what we need from everyone.”
Johnson needs to be better, too.
He’s made some clutch plays, including a 2-yard touchdown catch with 2 seconds left to seal a 24-23 win over Carolina on Sept. 15.
And Johnson’s made his share of mistakes.
He had a drive-killing pass slip through his hands that contributed to the New England Patriots rallying to a season-opening 23-21 win. Against the Falcons, Johnson had the ball punched loose at the Atlanta 30 with 20 seconds left and the game tied at 31.
Johnson credited Falcons cornerback Robert McClain for making a great play. That drew flak from some, who interpreted Johnson’s comments as trying to deflect blame.
Not so, Johnson said.
“As a competitor, I’m (ticked). I put my life in this thing. I’ve done played through my broken back, all that,” Johnson said. “I’m mad. But when I look at the play, damn, I didn’t see any error in what I was doing besides the ball getting knocked out. But he made a play.”