A few months ago, the enthusiasm of Bills Coach Gregg Williams for Rob Johnson in the team's new West Coast offense was contagious. On paper, it seemed like a perfect fit.
And maybe, eventually, Johnson will find his groove under the direction of a bright, resourceful staff. Bills coaches point out that even Steve Young and Brett Favre took a couple of years to master the West Coast offense.
But there are two problems with that. First, many Bills fans don't want to give Johnson a couple of minutes, let alone a couple of years. He already has been stumbling around in the Bills' offense for more than three years, and the lack of patience for him at Ralph Wilson Stadium last Sunday - before, during and after Buffalo's 24-6 loss to New Orleans - was palpable. On the local radio shows, annoyed callers grumbled about everything from the zip in his arm to the look on his face.
The other problem is Johnson takes more punishment on a regular basis than anyone this side of Gary Condit, and this sack thing has plagued him in every offense in which he has played since his college days at USC. In his NFL career, Johnson has been sacked once for every 6.59 pass plays; that is the worst ratio in the NFL in more than 30 years, according to STATS, Inc.
When the Bills made the decision to keep Johnson over Doug Flutie in the off-season, the first thing they should have done was make certain they had an offensive line that could protect him. In their opener against the Saints, the Bills lined up three questionable first-time starters on the right side. And the supposed anchor of the line, left tackle John Fina, has been playing as poorly as any of them. To make matters worse, the Bills have a rookie tailback, Travis Henry, who is trying to pick up blitzers and stray pass rushers.
The Bills might have the worst offensive line in the league and the easiest quarterback to sack, which is kind of like being bald and having pearly white skin.
Getting burned is a foregone conclusion.
Bills offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard describes Johnson as "anxious and committed." At times in the off-season, Johnson worked harder than a mule, or even a coach. He certainly is gifted, and at times has looked like a special passer.
Physically, Johnson has the skills to avoid pass rushers and make defenses pay for their aggressiveness by running. Instinctively, he lacks the feel for the pocket that most efficient quarterbacks have. In fact, he often runs or drifts into sacks, as he did when Saints end Joe Johnson brought him down in the third quarter.
Bills coaches are trying to show Johnson where to move when he feels pressure from various spots, but that couldn't prevent five sacks by the Saints' "Murderer's Row" defensive line. In the preseason, Johnson was sacked six times in four quarters. Counting the preseason and the first regular-season game, Johnson has been sacked once for every 5.8 pass plays in his new offense. That's worse than his career ratio.
The West Coast offense, with its short drops and movement concepts, is supposed to leave Johnson less vulnerable. But the Saints play a lot of cover 2 defense, which is tough on three-step drops. So the Bills tried only five three-step drops, by my press box count. Forced to play catch-up in the second half, the Bills also tried the shotgun for 11 snaps. Of Johnson's 16 mid-range to deep drops, he was hit, sacked or intercepted eight times.
"When you face a quarterback like that, you have to take advantage,' said Joe Johnson, who did so by sacking Rob Johnson three times. Safety Sammy Knight also had a hat trick - three interceptions.
Johnson still is hanging on to the ball too long. Applaud his courage. Condemn his procrastination. Instead of playing like he has a stopwatch in his head, Johnson plays like he has a calendar.
"The guy can get rid of the football, but he doesn't," Saints defensive coordinator Ron Zook says. "He holds on to it until the last minute. So look at it this way - he's a tough sucker. Anybody who would take some of the hits that he takes, he has to be considered tough, and tough guys are winners."
Some of Johnson's sacks this year have been the result of confusion and indecision because the offense is new. But the trend is bigger than that. Johnson still is failing to take the easy throw. Sheppard believes that's because Johnson is so intent on making his downfield reads.
"He needs to look for the outlet," says one former Bills staff member. "For some reason, he barely goes to the outlet. He's so confident in his athletic ability that he takes off and forgets where some of his other options are."
In the Bills' previous offense, Johnson was encouraged to take off more quickly. But the West Coast stresses that he should follow through with all his receivers, and run only when he has to.
In theory, this offense should help Johnson. In reality, he may have a new address before he's ever totally comfortable in it.