This past weekend, the football world was surprised with Calvin Johnson’s sudden announcement of his plans to retire. For Detroit Lions fans who saw Barry Sanders retire earlier in his career, this comes as an almost cruel twist of fate, as the Lions will also have to pay Johnson around $9 million in dead money one year after they already had to pay former nose tackle Ndamakong Suh.
Johnson’s retirement also comes as a surprise because he is only 30: he is now another name to add to the list of talented NFL players that have retired at a young age. Patrick Willis, Chris Gamble and Chris Borland all retired before or around that age. Nonetheless, Johnson should almost certainly be a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a few reasons.
3. He might be the most athletic wide receiver to ever play the game.
I know I get a lot of crap for being a numbers-based guy, but even without looking at statistics, Johnson’s athleticism at his position is essentially unprecedented in NFL history. He was effectively the equivalent of LeBron James at his position during his prime.
At 6-foot-5 and around 240 pounds, Johnson is often referred to as Megatron because of the distinct size advantage that he has over smaller cornerbacks. It’s damn near impossible to press him at the line because of how physical he is, making him an exceptional possession receiver that can overpower defenders and effectively bully his man right from the snap.
Of course, the nightmare for defensive coordinators doesn’t stop there With a measured 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, Johnson is also a scorcher on the field and a massive threat deep. Because of this, opposing cornerbacks are essentially in a position where they can’t exactly back off him at the line either. If Johnson is going deep, it’s almost guaranteed that the safety over the top will be forced to account for him.
Actually, battling Johnson for ball position is like trying to block a Blake Griffin dunk on a fast break. That sounds like hyperbole until you take into account that Johnson’s more than 40-inch vertical leap makes him able to catch pretty much anything thrown in his general direction, effectively allowing his quarterback to easily place the ball only where Johnson can get it.
“It’s almost like it’s your ideal receiver…like he’s created on ‘Madden,’ when you put his overall 99,” cornerback Darrelle Revis told ESPN. “He’s got the fastest speed on there – and the strength and everything is maximized to another level.”
Imagine that a player was as fast as a running back, but as difficult to tackle as a linebacker and as athletic as a basketball power forward. That’s why they call Johnson Megatron – his almost unfairly high athleticism has never been seen at his position before.
2. He can run any route at an elite level.
When people think of Calvin Johnson, they think of his spectacular catches deep down the field, but what most people forget to mention is how his size is complemented by an immensely high on-field IQ and ability to be placed anywhere on the field.
Though the Lions during the Stafford-Johnson era were obviously known for their ability to throw the ball vertically/down-the-field, Johnson was also a monster in the slot and reliable on any third-down play for a quick pickup of yards. Versatility as a wide receiver is an essential skillset for the best in the game – especially for the Lions, who for the most part lacked a franchise back or any consistent kind of rushing game for Johnson’s nine years in the league.
Watch any crossing route the Lions run against zone coverage if you don’t believe it. In these plays, linebackers or anyone playing the hook space are almost forced to commit harder towards following Johnson or at least watching where he goes.
This opens up opportunities for other receivers to shine against defenses – or at least gives us a few incredible plays where Johnson makes us question if his Megatron name is really just a name.
1. No WR has ever had such little help and been so far and away the most valuable for his offense.
Often times, we conflate individual legacy with team success. We see this through a case like Tom Brady, who gets credit for winning rings with great Patriots teams before even winning an MVP and becoming an elite quarterback in his own right. When a team loses, sometimes it’s blamed on one player.
I really hope this doesn’t happen with Johnson. In terms of his prime, he may have been the best receiver ever – or at least up there with the other three names that most people mention for greatest receivers in Bowl Era history: Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.
You don’t even have to look at his Earth-shattering 2012 season, when Johnson almost became the first receiver in NFL history to break 2,000 yards and also the first cyborg to ever play in the league. Just look at how much better a guy like Matthew Stafford looks when throwing to Johnson. Stafford isn’t replacement level and certainly a talented player in his own right, but let’s compare him to the quarterbacks that Rice, Moss and Owens got to play with.
Joe Montana. Steve Young. Rich Gannon. Randall Cunningham. Daunte Culpepper. Tom Brady. Jeff Garcia. Donovan McNabb. The only one even remotely comparable to Stafford is McNabb. Everyone else had been elite at some point in their careers, if not outright Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks.
If you think the vast difference in supporting cast is limited to quarterbacks, think again. The list of coaches and offensive coordinators that have completely wasted Johnson’s talent is actually kind of depressing. Let’s put it this way: the most consistent and successful combination of the two in Johnson’s career was Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan.
No offense to those two, but are we really going to directly compare a player who had to deal with that to players who got to play under innovators like Bill Walsh, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid (clock management issues aside)?
It’s not always accurate to play a game of “what-if” with players, but it’s important for football analysts and historians to always appreciate context before dismissing players as career losers or “only good for fantasy.” We should realize how incredibly lucky we are to witness one of the greatest pass catchers of all time.
Though it’s admittedly a heartbreaking and seemingly early loss for the league, Johnson’s legacy as an unstoppable terminator on the offensive end will most certainly be one of the most memorable ones in NFL history.