This week we have dedicated several articles to remembering a handful of the big names that decided it was time to move on from their respective sports. Each piece will focus on one individual, and incorporate how the author will remember that specific player.
All the players on this list have either just finished their last season, or are currently playing in what they have said would be their last season.
We continue the trend with Calvin Johnson.
“With the first pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Oakland Raiders select JaMarcus Russell, quarterback, LSU.”
Shortly thereafter, the Detroit Lions sent their pick to the podium.
“With the second pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions select Calvin Johnson, wide receiver, Georgia Tech.”
Hindsight is 20’20, but could you blame Al Davis for taking a shot on a high-upside quarterback in Russell instead of making the safe selection and opting for the wide receiver who would later be referred to as Megatron? I remember siding with Davis at the time, but I’m going to blame my impressionable pre-teen years for that.
Of course, Russell would soon become one of the NFL Draft’s all-time busts while Megatron would break several NFL records in his all-too-short nine-year career.
But what made Megatron so special was not just his role as leader of the Decepticons ability to make past receiving records look like child’s play, but also his blend of size, speed and catching ability that was in line with the game’s greats.
Now, I’m going to take you on a trip down memory lane and show you why Calvin Johnson was one of the best receivers of the millennium and why we will someday see his bust in Canton, Ohio.
Getting to Detroit
Johnson originally made waves playing college football at Georgia Tech. Under current-Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s tutelage, the Yellow Jackets earned their reputation as a high-octane offense and Megatron played a noted role in that development.
After three years, Johnson had collected 178 receptions, 2,927 yards and 28 touchdowns. If that does not already jump off the page, keep in mind that the yards and touchdown numbers rank first in school history while the receptions count lands him in second place. Without much more to accomplish and desiring the salary associated with being a top-five pick, Johnson forwent his final season of eligibility and declared for the NFL Draft.
Johnson would run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash in a private workout with Georgia Tech’s conditioning coach in February 2007, just two months before the NFL Draft. He further impressed with an 11-foot standing broad jump and a vertical leap of 43 inches.
Had it not been for a slightly overweight appearance at the NFL scouting combine, it is very possible that Johnson would have donned the Black and Silver of Oakland; however, he showed up weighing 239 pounds instead of his advertised 225-230 pound range.
When the Draft finally came, Johnson had done his part to recover from his combine gaffe by holding a remarkable pro-day. His talent and recovery would garner a second-overall selection in that year’s NFL Draft.
The Early Years
Rookie wide receivers were not as successful back in the mid-2000’s as they are now. A 1,000-yard season was the exception not the norm for rookies and for a big wide receiver coming from a non-pro style system like Georgia Tech’s, Johnson was unlikely to succeed right off the bat. That said, Johnson’s 756 yards and five touchdowns were not giving Lions fans much confidence in their team’s selection.
In 2008, Johnson would find success as he would go onto recording 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns over the course of the Lions’ dismal 0-16 campaign that year. Johnson was catching passes from past-their-prime versions of Jon Kitna and Daunte Culpepper that year, yet still finished as one of the best wide receivers in the entire league.
After the Lions’ disastrous 2008 season, the team opted to make an improvement at quarterback and draft Georgia’s Matthew Stafford.
The formation of the Stafford-Johnson connection
Johnson’s performance in 2009 appeared tepid as he tried to work out the kinks with Stafford. Fans were completely uncertain what to expect from Johnson: after 756 and 1,331-yard seasons, Johnson quieted down in 2009 to the tune of 984 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Was he a game-breaking 1200+ yard receiver who could score touchdowns at whim or was he a sub-1,000 yard receiver on a team that was already not too desperate at the wide receiver position? The next few years, Johnson and Stafford would prove that his third NFL season was nothing more than an aberration.
In 2010, his fourth year in Detroit, Johnson picked up 1120 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. The following season, Johnson led the league in receiving yards with 1,681 while scoring 16 touchdowns.
Not only that, the Lions finally made the playoffs, providing him the opportunity to showcase his talents for the nation to see. Johnson did not fail to impress: his 12 receptions, 211 yards and two touchdown performance still come to mind as one of the best playoff games from a wide receiver in the history of the game. Clearly, whatever doubts people had about Johnson’s abilities were all for naught.
A year for the ages
When people think of Megatron, 2012 is usually the first thing that comes to mind. That year, Johnson broke the NFL record for receiving yards in a season with 1964 and for number of games with 100+ yards receiving in a season with 11.
At this point, it was no longer a matter of if Johnson was good or not, rather it was a question of whether Johnson was the best of all time. In the following season, Johnson would regress (if one could even call it that) but still amassed 1492 yards in the air and collecting 12 touchdowns. Still, Detroit struggled as a team and again missed the playoffs in spite of Megatron’s play.
The beginning of the end and the decision
In 2014, Johnson finally slowed down, with injuries taking their toll on the talented receiver. Still, his 1077 yards in 13 games make for a 1300+ yard season if played out over a full season. Not to mention that his target numbers dropped significantly as a result of Golden Tate’s arrival in Motown. 2015 wasn’t the best year by Johnson’s standards but he still finished the year as one of the game’s best wideouts with 88 receptions, 1214 yards, and 9 touchdowns.
A 30-year old wide receiver still performing at an elite level like Johnson would not normally retire. But, of course, there was nothing normal about Megatron as a football player and thus it makes sense that he would leave the game when he wanted to, not when the game’s norms said he should.
Nevertheless, it came as a shock to many when rumblings surfaced in January that Johnson had told the Lions of his plans to retire. On March 8, Johnson would officially announce (via statement) his retirement from the game.
The reasoning remains unclear but that does not matter: Johnson, even in a short 10 year career, not only cemented his status as a future hall of famer, but also as one of the game’s best wide receivers to ever grace our television screens, and for that, he will always be remembered.