By Tim Graham
In the Buffalo Bills' locker room, about an hour before the players would learn Chan Gailey had been fired, Stevie Johnson reflected on 2012 with personal regret.
Johnson had achieved statistical success. He posted his third straight season of 1,000 receiving yards, extending his club record. He had 79 catches and six touchdowns.
But Johnson suggested he failed as a leader, a realization he wished had happened sooner.
"Maybe me being a better leader could've helped us," Johnson said two weeks ago on locker clean-out day. "Too little, too late. I wish I could've had more time with it."
Johnson's revelation came after a disastrous Week 16 performance against the Miami Dolphins. He bungled a touchdown catch, blew up at side judge Jeff Lamberth, lost a fumble and had some drops.
In street clothes before boarding the team bus, Bills running back Tashard Choice delivered some blunt words to Johnson about being a role model to his teammates. Johnson, known for the occasional outburst, claimed something sunk in.
"The talk with Tashard put it over the top as far as leadership goes," Johnson said. "I have to do certain things differently."
Hadn't coaches or players counseled him on such matters before?
"Lee Evans gave me a talk, but Lee was still here," Johnson said. "I had to start thinking as a leader, 'But you're still here, Lee. So you can do all the talking.'
"Now it's a situation where I'm the veteran receiver. I'm not the younger guy anymore. You've got to grow."
Johnson is well-established as an NFL player. He expressed a desire on locker clean-out day to evolve into more than that for the Bills.
"In the position I'm in, I realize everybody's looking at me as a leader," Johnson said. "Just the whole mindset of being on the sideline and getting at these guys ... That presence needs to be felt a little more.
"That's why I wish there were more games, so I could work on that. ... Not the guy out in front, 'Oorah! Oorah!' but just doing a little bit more. Usually, I would sit back and be like, 'I'm just going to make plays,' and let that be the thing. But you've got to take it up another notch."
Choice, moments after talking with Johnson in the Sun Life Stadium visitors' locker room, told me a sharpened awareness of Johnson's status should help him grow as a player, too.
"When Stevie has that year where he blows up in the NFL, it's going to be here," Choice said, pointing at his temples. "It's not going to be nothing with what he's doing on the field because he works his tail off. He's always been able to make people miss at the line of scrimmage.
"He takes it so personally because he loves to win, loves to compete. With the season we've had, great players take it on themselves, and it shows in his frustration at times.
"With him being a leader on this team, he has to sometimes keep himself cool for the betterment of the team. He can drop 10 balls, but he still has to be uplifting because other guys look to him."
Few players on Buffalo's roster have as many side projects going on off the field as Johnson. Some at One Bills Drive consider them distractions. He dabbles in hip-hop. He shoots comedy videos for The NOC on YouTube. He's a spokesman for several products.
But Johnson insisted he would keep that edge he had on locker clean-out day.
"It's a learning thing," Johnson said. "I'm sure I'll have it in me for this whole offseason, and when I come back in training camp I'll get things going."