BALTIMORE MD - OCTOBER 24: Steve Johnson #13 and Lee Evans #83 of the Buffalo Bills celebrate Lee's touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 24 2010 in Baltimore Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Bills 37-34. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
The Buffalo Bills let Terrell Owens leave as a free agent this past spring. That's the same Terrell Owens that led the Bills in receptions (55) and receiving yards (829) a year ago, and who in Cincinnati is proving that he still has plenty left in the tank, as he has 26 receptions, 412 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games alone.
Who'd have ever thought that, given Owens' reputation and production, the team wouldn't regret letting him leave, even in the short term?
The great (and we don't use that term loosely) play of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is certainly helping, but unheralded players that had proven little prior to the 2010 season - Roscoe Parrish, David Nelson and especially Steve Johnson - are quickly making Owens' brief stint with the Bills a very distant memory. Almost like a dream.
Take Johnson, for starters. In his third professional season out of Kentucky, the former seventh-round draft pick has already equaled Owens' touchdown output (five) from last year - in just six games. Raise your hand if you'd have guessed that would happen, and then endure as the rest of this fan base laughs disbelievingly in your face.
Through six games, Johnson has become Fitzpatrick's favorite receiving target, as he leads the Bills in receptions (25), receiving yards (372) and touchdowns (five). He's still rough around the edges; a foolish (if hilarious) personal foul in New England and a few other penalties - including a hold in Sunday's 37-34 overtime loss to Baltimore - prove that he's still got kinks in his game to iron out. What he has proven is that he's capable of beating NFL cornerbacks on a routine basis; the same abilities that you see him display in the open field after a catch, in which he has a great knack for getting defenders turned and out of position despite a lack of great speed, is what makes Johnson such a fantastic (and rapidly-improving) route-runner.
Johnson's story is a great one, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. Nelson, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Florida who never had more than 25 receptions in a season, has earned the trust of Fitzpatrick, as well. He's caught 12 passes for 145 yards this season, and added a pair of clutch, chain-moving receptions yesterday in Baltimore - one that came in fourth down in which he took a huge hit from venerable safety Ed Reed. He's only the Bills' fourth receiver, but his offensive role is already significant.
Then there's Parrish, the 2005 second-round pick that earned a spot in Dick Jauron's doghouse and the title of glorified punt returner. He's earned a starting spot over Johnson, and hasn't disappointed: he's grabbed 22 passes for 266 yards, and he, too, had a big play in Baltimore, with an extending, toe-tapping catch on a third down to move the chains. He, too, has been a pleasant surprise, as he's well on his way to having a career year.
We haven't even mentioned Lee Evans' name yet. Evans is third on the team in receptions (21), but second to Johnson in both yardage (286) and touchdowns (four - three in Baltimore). He has still been somewhat inconsistent - he dropped a pass on Buffalo's game-tying drive at the end of regulation yesterday - but the Bills have still found a way to get him at least four receptions in four of six games this season (he was shut out in Green Bay, and had one reception against New York). Teams are still focusing on Evans first - why wouldn't they? - but the production of Evans' running mates, particularly of late, is clearly leaving room for Evans to make plays. All four of his touchdowns have come in the past two games.
The most impressive consideration here, however, is the balance that the team has within its top four receivers. Chan Gailey's offense is averaging just over 24 points per game with Fitzpatrick at the helm, and the biggest reason is that they've found balance in its passing attack. Fitzpatrick has at least 20 completions in three of his four starts this season. All four receivers have had at least one game with four or more receptions since Fitzpatrick took over. In that same time frame, Johnson has 19 receptions; Parrish has 18; Evans has 17. Teams can't focus on just one receiver, because Fitzpatrick is simply taking what the defense gives him, and utilizing all three receivers very effectively.
Things aren't perfect offensively (though they were close in Baltimore). But amidst an 0-6 start, one positive to hang your hat on is that Buffalo's passing offense has ascended from stagnant to potent in a very quick fashion, and they're downright fun to watch at times. That's a very, very significant development - and Buffalo's young, unproven receiving corps is one of the brightest positional groups on the team.