But the Buffalo Bills leading receiver insisted on making a beeline for the post-game podium. It was his call to face the music, to grab the microphone so he could rehash a play that will haunt him for the rest of his playing days. You had to admire him for standing tall during such a low moment. And you had to feel for him, too, because his agony was palpable.
“You go through that whole game knowing you got a good team like the Pittsburgh Steelers (on the ropes) and you have this kid coming up in the NFL making plays and, all of a sudden, when the biggest play needs to be made, you don’t make it,’’ Johnson said, his voice choking with emotion, his hands squeezing the podium as if it were that football that got away.
“You feel bad, you feel devastated – not because of yourself, but because those guys worked so hard. Our defense stopped them. Our offense was moving the ball. They were working. And it comes down to that one play and you drop the ball.”
And let an upset victory against a Super Bowl contender slip through your fingertips.
“I’ll never get over it,’’ Johnson said, roughly 15 minutes after the Steelers escaped here with a 19-16 victory on Shaun Suisham’s 41-yard field goal with 3:41 remaining in overtime.
“I’ll never get over it. Ever. They will. The Buffalo Bills will get over it. I won’t get over it. You’re a receiver. You don’t drop the ball. You go through 15 drops (actually five) in a game. I won’t get over it.”
Here’s hoping that he does.
Here’s hoping that there are more opportunities for him to experience the football equivalent of a walk-off home run.
And here’s hoping that he and Bills fans put things into perspective and remember that this is the same guy who caught three touchdowns during last Sunday’s comeback victory against Cincinnati and that this is a guy who, in spite of a problem with drops, also has 59 receptions for 796 yards and 9 TDs in 11 games this season.
“In this business, there’s two types of people – the humble and the humbled – and if you are not in the first group, you’ll be in the second group at some point in time,’’ said Bills coach Chan Gailey, whose team dropped its third overtime game this season and is now 2-9. “I just told him, that’s the way it goes sometimes. You can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in a hurry, but how you handle it is the key. He’s a good man. He’s a competitor. I think he’ll come back.”
I do, too. Every receiver goes through periods when they can’t hold onto the football. It happens even to the great ones. I saw it happen to Jerry Rice and Andre Reed and, in the past few years, to Terrell Owens. But, like quarterbacks with interceptions, receivers have to experience temporary amnesia. They need to forget about it. They have to be ready for the next opportunity, the next spiral hurtling their way.
“He’s made a lot of plays and I think he’ll continue to make a lot of big plays,’’ Gailey said. “I hurt for him. I hurt for our football team, but we’ll keep coaching him and working with him and he’s going to continue to be a big part of what we do.”
Not that it’s much consolation, but Johnson’s play – while the most regrettable – was just one of several that prevented Buffalo from extending its win streak to three.
Heck, on the kickoff return to open overtime, Leodis McKelvin returned the ball 49 yards to the Pittsburgh 48 and might have gone the distance and won the game had he not tripped over his own blocker, Arthur Moats. The Bills failed to capitalize on the great field position.
A beautiful punt by Brian Moorman pinned the Steelers at their four and a third down sack by Chris Kelsay – the fifth of the day against the normally elusive Ben Roethlisberger – forced Pittsburgh to kick from its end zone. Daniel Sepulveda boomed a 55-yarder that McKelvin fumbled. Drayton Florence recovered at the Bills 34, but McKelvin’s miscue cost Buffalo great field position.
Overall, the Bills played almost well enough to win against an opponent that was favored by 6 ½ points. But almost well enough doesn’t get it done in a league where the difference between the best and the worst can be razor thin. Consider this: The Bills have lost four games this season by a field goal. Another loss was by five points. A play here, a play there and this team could be 7-4 instead of 2-9.
“For us to get to where we want to be as a football team, we have to win those kind of games,’’ Gailey said. “We’re getting in a position to beat better teams. We’ve been getting close to beating those teams, but we’ve got to do it. You can’t talk about it anymore.”
And you can’t be haunted by the past.
Drops happen. But so do game-winning catches. Here’s hoping Stevie Johnson will get a shot at redemption.