Early this week, Tom Donahoe sat down Rob Johnson for a little chat. The Buffalo Bills general manager was blunt with his struggling quarterback. He told him that after four weeks of the season and months of studying the West Coast offense, it was about time to break through with a big game.
"He told me he was expecting a lot," Johnson said. "He said he knew I'd had only four games and hadn't gotten a lot of preseason work. He's a very patient man."
Donahoe's patience was rewarded Thursday as Johnson turned in perhaps his finest game as a Bill, completing 23 of 30 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown as Buffalo beat the Jaguars, 13-10, for their first win under head coach Gregg Williams.
All along, Donahoe has advised us to be patient with this young team. Thursday, before a national TV audience, it finally put together a complete game. The offense was efficient. The defense was dominant. The special teams won the game on a Jake Arians field goal. The coaches put in their most inventive and successful game plan this year.
In the end, however, it always comes back to Johnson. His supporters say he gets too much blame for the Bills' losses, and there's some truth to that. But against Jacksonville, he showed how much it can mean to a team when the quarterback is at the top of his game, when he's setting the tone with confidence.
Johnson finally seemed comfortable in the offense, mixing safe throws with occasional improvisation. Johnson was assured and decisive, making quick reads to find open receivers downfield and dumping the ball off into the flat. For the most part, he was able to elude pressure and made a number of big plays on the run.
Most important, he was a leader. When the offense failed to score a touchdown in the first half - despite moving the ball and enjoying good field position - he didn't get discouraged. And when the Bills fell behind, 7-3, early in the third quarter, Johnson responded, throwing a gorgeous 27-yard TD pass to Eric Moulds to grab the lead, and the momentum, right back.
"That was huge," Johnson said. "That has hurt us in the past. Whenever a team would score on us, we wouldn't answer. To answer like that was big-time. We went right down and scored on them, and it was great."
The West Coast attack is at its best when the ball is being spread around to different receivers. Johnson moved it nicely, getting Jay Riemersma, Larry Centers and Travis Henry involved in the offense. And when it came time for the big play, he didn't forget that Moulds is this team's most reliable playmaker, its big gun.
Moulds was getting double-teamed all night. But he and Johnson waited for their opportunity. It came on a third-and-7 play from the Jags' 27. Moulds said he released from the inside, hoping to give Peerless Price a chance to get open on the outside. But the Jags' cornerback let Moulds go and the safety was late picking him up.
Johnson saw it happen and didn't miss his opportunity. He hit Moulds in stride in the right corner of the end zone for the TD.
"I've seen him play this well before," Moulds said. "He did in the Indianapolis game a couple of years ago. When he plays with poise, like he did tonight, I think he's a great quarterback."
The question is whether he can do it more often. Johnson desperately needed a game like this. The Bills had lost the last eight games he'd started. He needs to re-establish his credentials as a successful NFL quarterback and keep alive the possibility that he'll actually be back in Buffalo next year, a lucrative contract extension in hand.
It's only one game. He has a lot of work ahead to prove he belongs as a starting quarterback in the league. He has to play this way on a regular basis, and he has to stay healthy. But at least this is a step forward - for him and the entire team, which has finally shown some progress and given Bills fans a sliver of hope.
"It's unbelievable," Johnson said. "It's been a tough six weeks. To finally get a win, a total team effort, hopefully, this will springboard us for the rest of the season."
We'll find out soon enough how much of a springboard this is, and whether it can reach all the way to San Diego.