The 2012 NFL free agent signing period begins exactly one month from today - on the afternoon of March 13 - and for Buffalo Bills fans, all of the team's bounty of concerns largely remain secondary to the status of wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
Not many 25-year-old receivers coming off of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons hit the open market, and most Bills fans are hoping that the team is able to prevent that from happening in four weeks. Johnson became the first receiver in franchise history to pull off that feat this past season, and as he's just entering his prime, most believe that consistently excellent football lies in his future.
There are a lot of factors at play in this process, and the fact that Johnson is the team's most marketable personality since Terrell Owens - in some ways, he may even come out ahead on that front - heightens the scale of the issue. The Bills really do need to re-sign Johnson, not just because he's a good football player, but because of the backlash they'd get if they fail to do so. But none of that concerns Johnson himself, who should have ample reason to desire to remain in Buffalo, as well.
That's not to say that the usual suspects - more money, a bigger market, a winning team and a better quarterback - won't trump the reasons that Johnson currently has to stay in Buffalo. Prioritizing those factors over what follows would not make Johnson selfish; it would make him practical. But the pro-Bills factors are practical, as well.
The first of those factors is Chan Gailey - or, more specifically, Gailey's offense. We critique it quite frequently, but the fact of the matter is that Gailey's approach has been exceedingly kind to Johnson. The receiver's unique route-running style is something that Gailey has a firm handle on, and the Bills' passing attack is tailored nearly perfectly to that tendency, prioritizing spots on the field over specific routes. Gailey is not necessarily cutting-edge in his approach, but a new coaching staff may struggle to adapt to Johnson's style - and Johnson isn't a fit for every system, either.
Similarly, Ryan Fitzpatrick is a factor working in Buffalo's favor. Let's not pretend that Johnson, in a vacuum, would pick playing with Fitzpatrick over playing with, say, Tom Brady. Nobody would. And if Johnson leaves for greener pastures at the position, he'd almost certainly find chemistry with his new quarterback at some point. But as with Gailey, Johnson already has a well-established working rapport with Fitzpatrick - and for all of his current quarterback's flaws, Johnson has been very productive with him. A new location would require an adjustment period, even if he landed in a spot with a world-class signal-caller. There is risk in abandoning not only Gailey's offense, but Fitzpatrick as his quarterback.
Again, the Gailey and Fitzpatrick factors in no way trump more traditional factors like money, market and, well, winning. Nobody is exactly sure of how Johnson is prioritizing all of these items, but his public comments about wanting to remain in Buffalo show not only some degree of loyalty to the city that generally adores him and the franchise that drafted him, but a form of acknowledgment that this team may easily be the best fit for him.
Essentially, Johnson must weigh the risk of turning down perhaps a bit more money and other various opportunities for the production and stability of his current situation. On Buffalo's side of the coin, this isn't a redux of failed attempts to re-sign high-profile free agents in past seasons; there are very real factors working heavily in Buffalo's favor. There is still plenty of time to get a deal done before free agency begins, but at this juncture, the odds of Johnson returning to Buffalo if he does hit the open market still seem significantly lower than the odds of getting a deal done before March 13. As time passes, the pressure increases. It's going to be a frantic month, folks.