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On Stevie Johnson, TD Celebrations And Being Clutch

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On November 21, 2010, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson had the game of his life, catching eight passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns in a 49-31 Bills win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He also made himself a mini-celebrity for his "Why So Serious?" touchdown celebration in which he played the proverbial Joker to the Batman and Robin identities adopted by then-Bengals receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.

Does anybody remember that Johnson's famous celebration came with the Bills trailing 31-20 in that ball game? Does anyone remember that Johnson was fined $5,000 for the act - his second such fine in a two-month span at the time?

This is the nature of memorable touchdown celebrations in the NFL: they're glorified. Because the Bills beat the Bengals last year, Johnson's celebrity took a major upturn thanks to what was, in reality, the same type of ridiculous in-game scoring celebration that has Johnson in so much hot water with Bills observers today.

Most of you are aware by now that Johnson cost the Bills 15 yards in Sunday's loss to the New York Jets with an unsportsmanlike conduct flag following a post-touchdown celebration in which he mimicked shooting himself in the leg - a la Plaxico Burress - then went to the ground mimicking a crashed jet. It was the latter act that drew the flag.

Because the Bills elected to squib kick the ensuing kickoff - and because Dave Rayner botched it, because the Jets recovered at Buffalo's 36-yard line, and because Burress would later score to tie the game at 14 - Johnson is being vilified virtually everywhere today.

Paul Hamilton called Johnson a joke. James Walker called the celebration dumb. Jerry Sullivan says Johnson's antics are starting to wear thin. That's all to be expected, because again, it's the nature of touchdown celebrations: when the going is good, they're remembered fondly; when the going gets rough, they're a distraction.

Johnson's admittedly ill-advised celebration is doing just that: distracting fans from what they should really be discussing today. Johnson proved on Sunday why it's so difficult to decide whether or not he should be a part of the team's long-term plans. Is he the receiver that can beat up on the league's best, or is he the receiver that can't make plays in the clutch?

How distracting has the celebration been? Take it away, Mr. Hamilton:

It really doesn’t matter that for the most part Stevie Johnson had a good game against the Jets. It doesn’t matter that he’s a very nice kid who enjoys life. He challenged the league’s best corner in Darrelle Rivis several times on Sunday and won. He had eight catches for 75 yards and a touchdown...

Sorry, Mr. Hamilton, but it does matter that Johnson had a good game against the Jets, and particularly Revis. In two games this season, Johnson beat Revis for 11 receptions, 159 yards and a touchdown. Receivers just don't do that against Revis. To say that a 15-yard flag undoes what Johnson accomplished against the unquestioned best corner in the league - a true lock-down player - is absurd to the point of hilarity. A dumb flag doesn't turn Darrelle Revis into Chris Watson.

It matters quite a bit that Johnson has proven himself capable of playing with, and beating, the league's best players. It matters just as much, however, that Johnson left more plays on the field - and that's a far more interesting discussion to have today than re-hashing what he did after a second-quarter touchdown.

Johnson had two opportunities to provide the Bills with game-winning points on the team's final, desperation drive in the 28-24 loss to New York. On the second of those, Johnson got open in the end zone, but a scrambling Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a ball that tailed to Johnson's left and fell harmlessly incomplete. It was a missed opportunity, but blame can be spread on that particular play.

The first opportunity, however, was the real issue for Johnson. On a play that Fitzpatrick and Johnson admitted that they'd drawn up in the huddle - and which they'd never practiced before - Johnson ran free on a slant, splitting Revis and a safety, and Fitzpatrick hit him in stride. A caught pass would've yielded significant after-the-catch yardage and perhaps even points, but Johnson didn't get his head around quickly enough during the route, and the ball was dropped.

Johnson took to Twitter after the game to address fan sentiment that the drop was as devastating as his drop of a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. The fact of the matter is that it wasn't nearly as galling a moment as last year's fiasco. It did, however, represent at least the second dropped pass that could've defined him as a clutch performer. Today, he's viewed as the exact opposite of clutch.

My opinion on this whole issue: touchdown celebrations are generally dumb, and Johnson's was dumber than most. It did not cost the team the game, even though he shouldered the blame. His inability to deliver in the clutch is infinitely more concerning, and his general lack of focus - whether he's concocting stupid celebrations or dropping passes - is the epitome of this Bills team right now. It's also far more defining of Johnson the player than anything else that happened on the field.

Johnson has proven over the course of the past (nearly) two seasons that he's a good player, that he works well in Chan Gailey's system, and that he belongs in this league. Bills fans shouldn't be hoping that he turns into Lee Evans and becomes boring after scoring (though that would be nice); they should be hoping that he becomes a more focused, professional player that can play the game with proper perspective. If he does that, he'll make the plays when the plays need to be made, and he'll be worth every penny that he and his agent are convinced he's worth.