PITTSFORD, N.Y. — The reality of Lee Evans' departure finally struck Stevie Johnson on the Soldier Field turf in Chicago, where the Bills receiver began doing sit-ups as part of his pregame ritual prior to Buffalo's pre-season opener last weekend.
"That was the only time I felt kind of weird," Johnson recalled, noting he was accustomed to doing the sit-ups with Evans. "I'm here by myself."
The former University of Kentucky standout might as well get used to it. As the shock of Evans getting traded to Baltimore last week wears off, Johnson is coming to grips with the opportunity and responsibility now before him.
Ready or not, Johnson enters his fourth NFL season having suddenly ascended into the role as the Bills' prime receiving threat. And with that, he assumes the position of leader of what remains a relatively untested group of receivers on an offense that has a reputation for stumbling.
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"Obviously, the attention's on me," Johnson said. "As long as I'm in this league, I'm going to have to prove myself over and over."
He spoke while barely breaking a grin, which prompted the question of why the usually playful and upbeat Johnson had suddenly turned serious? After all, this was the player who, upon scoring the first of three touchdowns against Cincinnati last season, pulled up his jersey to display the words "Why So Serious?" printed on his undershirt in homage to Batman's nemesis, The Joker.
"I want to handle business first," Johnson said about his demeanor. "And then we'll have fun later."
A self-proclaimed "entertainer," Johnson still has his moments. He'll still flash a toothy smile or spend a half-hour signing autographs to a growing group of fans — some who came to training camp wearing their own "Why So Serious?" T-shirts.
The question is whether he can be successful as a one-man show minus a proven threat such as Evans.
Johnson refuses to accept that notion. He says he's confident in his fellow receivers, a group including veteran Roscoe Parrish, David Nelson and Donald Jones, who's competing for the No. 2 spot.
"I am the guy, but I still feel like they're the guys also," Johnson said. "We all have something to prove, so why don't we all take this as a huge opportunity and make something of it."
Last season was a coming-out party for the former seventh-round pick out of Kentucky. Johnson erupted with team-leading and career-best numbers of 1,073 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
And yet there were enough low points to keep him grounded.
That was no more evident than what happened over consecutive Sundays in late November. One week, Johnson was basking in the glory of his headline-grabbing three-score, 137-yard performance in the 49-31 win over the Bengals.
The next, he was inconsolable after letting a sure touchdown pass drop through his hands in overtime of a 19-16 loss to Pittsburgh. Johnson became so down he infamously questioned God in a series of comments posted on his Twitter account.
Johnson can now look back and appreciate how the dropped pass provided him a lesson in humility because he had thought every week was going to be as easy as it was facing Cincinnati.
"I went into that week like, 'I'll just show up,' " he said. "That week was like, 'I can't be touched,' you know what I mean? That (drop) brought me back down. That was good."
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has noticed Johnson taking a more even-keeled approach this summer.
"As this goes on, I think he's learning more and more about how to handle his emotions," Fitzpatrick said. "He knows there's going to be ups and downs. And he'll get better with that as he plays more. But we enjoy what he brings. We enjoy his energy, his intensity. That's just part of who he is, and I think that really brings an edge to our offense."
That edge was missing in practice Wednesday, when Fitzpatrick and Johnson were not on the same page. Expecting Johnson to go one way rather than the other, Fitzpatrick twice missed the open receiver over the middle. The same thing happened on a timing pattern up the left sideline, when Johnson turned to the outside, and Fitzpatrick threw inside and was nearly intercepted by Terrence McGee.
Coach Chan Gailey said he has no reason to worry about Johnson.
"I think Stevie is very confident in his game. He really believes in himself," Gailey said, recalling how the player bounced back from the loss to Pittsburgh. "You know what, he's going to drop another one. But he's going to make a lot more good plays than bad plays in our offense."