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Sullivan: Johnson serious about his role

He is off to a good, if mercifully uneventful, start. Stevie Johnson has scored a touchdown in each of the Bills' first three games, tying him with for the lead among AFC wide receivers. The stat sheet also shows no embarrassing spectacles, zero penalties for excessive TD celebrations.
"Yeah, I'm happy I didn't see a yellow flag or an envelope on my stool," Johnson said Monday afternoon at One Bills Drive.
Johnson has scored in four straight games, dating back to last season's finale in New England. That TD, of course, was the one that got him penalized for pulling up his jersey to reveal a "Happy New Year" greeting on his shirt.
It wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't been his second offense of the year. Chan Gailey benched him for the second half, leaving skeptics - and I was among them - to wonder if Johnson's act had gone far enough and if it was worth it for the Bills to sign him to a long-term contract extension. Later, even Stevie said he wondered if he had blown it in Buffalo.
But they gave him a five-year, $36 million contract. Evidently, Johnson got the message.
He has come back with a more mature and responsible attitude.
All the Bills wanted was for him to grow up a little, be an example for the younger players and not embarrass himself when he reached the end zone.
"I didn't worry about it," Gailey said, "or we shouldn't have signed him back, to be honest with you."
Management's decision was based on the premise that Stevie would continue to get into the end zone.
When you've gone 12 years without reaching the playoffs, you don't want to toss away your best players. Johnson is a good guy, a good teammate.
He also wanted desperately to be a star, an entertainer as well as an athlete.
The benching made it clear.
It's OK to be flamboyant. It's who you are. But if you're going to be paid like a franchise player, you need to be mature enough to know where to draw the line.
"It was like they wanted me here, they accepted me," Johnson said of the contract negotiations. "So I needed to make some changes. It's time to change the way I go about things, the penalties and all that stuff. I had to get rid of that. It was nothing they said, just the notion they had for me. And I wanted to change it."
Johnson, 26, is in his fifth NFL season, his third as a regular. It's time he was recognized not for his act but his actions. If not for the penalties, more NFL fans might have known he was second in the league in third-down catches the last two seasons. Or that he was the first player in Bills history to gain 1,000 yards receiving in consecutive seasons.
When you get paid like an elite player, you need to perform like one. On Sunday in Cleveland, the Bills were without David Nelson, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. They needed a big play from their best skill player. Johnson responded, turning Cleveland's secondary inside-out on a 9-yard TD catch that cemented his team's first road win in a year and allowed a legion of Bills fans to exhale in relief.
"Stevie is so competitive," Fitzpatrick said. "He wants to score a touchdown on every play. He's an emotional guy, and he knows he needs to play with those emotions. But he's found a way to rein them in a little bit.
"That comes with maturity. But he's definitely a leader for us and a guy we look to, especially (the receivers), who look to him and his emotion."
It's not as if Johnson has abandoned celebration altogether. He handed the ball to the official after his TD at the Jets.
Hey, they were getting blown out. He did a semi-leap into the stands here against the Chiefs. At Cleveland, he performed an undulating dance that defies my powers of description.
"It's called the Yeevie," he said. "The Yeevie Dance, man. Yeevie is me. Stevie, but you put the 'Yee' in front of it. Where I'm from in the Bay Area, they always say 'Yeeee!' to something that's cool or you agree with. I guess it's our slang. It's a good thing, so I put Yee in front of Stevie and say Yeevie for a different type of personality."
Different, he is. That much won't change. As long as Yeevie keeps scoring touchdowns, the Bills will be fine with it.
Johnson has 22 touchdowns in 45 games. That's a better TD frequency than Andre Reed or Eric Moulds or any other prominent receiver in Bills history.
If he scores Sunday against the Patriots at the Ralph, Johnson will have reached five straight games with a TD, equaling his streak of two seasons ago.
"I thought about it then, and the streak ended up not continuing," Johnson said. "So now I'm just trying to get wins, not thinking about records or streaks. We compete just like everybody else in this league. We've shown we can play with anybody, and we feel we can beat anybody."
The Bills need Johnson to play at a high level if they expect to contend for the playoffs. He has 13 catches for 172 yards, which is slightly below his pace of the last two years.
He played through groin tears a year ago, and there's some concern that he is still nursing a groin injury.
The Pats like to target the opposition's top receiver and force teams to find other options in the passing game.
They routinely neutralized Lee Evans here, but Johnson is at the point where no one, including his coach, should be able to take him out of a game.