He caught 96 passes for a league-leading 1,681 yards while notching 16 touchdowns. He was also a big-play machine, with 32 of his catches going for 20 yards or more. No other receiver had more than 30 such plays and only Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald had more than 25.
Johnson also stepped up when it mattered most. With Detroit’s season hanging in the balance following a 2-5 midseason stretch, Johnson had more than 200 yards receiving in three of the Lions' last four games, including his 12-catch, 211-yard, two-touchdown performance in their Wild Card matchup against the Saints.
Johnson received First Team All-Pro honors and was an integral part of leading the Lions to their first postseason appearance in more than a decade. He was also rewarded with a few shekels, in the form of an eight-year, $132 million contract.
More than just the raw numbers, Johnson was a spectacle to behold. He had the lethal combination of being able to out-run and out-jump defenders. Johnson saw triple-coverage more often than he saw single-coverage and was still Matthew Stafford’s biggest target. Johnson was guaranteed to make at least three highlight reel catches every game (cut to Cowboys fans openly weeping). Whenever a play would breakdown, Lions fans, fans of the opponent and Stafford would all instinctively think the same thing: Where’s Calvin? More times than not, the strong armed QB would find Johnson for six.
Johnson is 26 years old. He is entering the prime of his career and has developed a relationship with his quarterback that could see the tandem become Peyton Manning/Marvin Harrison 2.0 (or better). Stafford’s first fully healthy season coincided with Johnson finally figuring out the intricacies of playing wide receiver: body positioning, timing, defeating bump-and-run coverage. Johnson has become a master at his craft yet still has time to perfect the process.
Johnson had nine touchdowns in the Lions' first five games last season, and it would not be out of the question for him to soon reach the rarefied air of Randy Moss’s 2007 season when Moss had 23 TD grabs. Everything points to Calvin Johnson (and as a byproduct, the Lions) getting even better.
So the only question that remains for Lions fans is: Do you believe in curses?
Because Calvin Johnson is only one small step away from joining one of the most infamous groups of all-time: players to grace the cover of Madden.
He needs only to defeat Cam Newton in the finals of the fan voting to appear on the cover of Madden ’13. After all the goodwill, positive energy and tangible results the Lions finally put on the field in 2011, it is a shame that a video game will blow it all up (there is a Transformers/Megatron/video game joke in here somewhere, but I’m honestly too sad to find it).
Superstition is part of sports. Whether it’s wearing the same underwear during a winning streak or refusing to date a woman who roots for the enemy, we all engage in it in some way. But the Madden Curse is different; it gets capitalized as a proper noun. It’s real.
A quick recap of the last decade or so of cursed cover boys and how they fared the following season (I won’t waste time explaining how great the players were the season prior to being on the cover, as their achievements were clearly great enough to have them represent the NFL on the world’s most popular video game):
2000: Barry Sanders
While John Madden was still on the cover of his game (John Madden really likes John Madden), an image of Sanders appeared as well. Weeks before the start of the 1999 season, Sanders abruptly retired, sending the Lions into a decade-long tailspin. No big deal.
2002: Daunte Culpepper
After running one of the league’s most prolific offenses and leading the Vikings to an NFC Championship Game, Culpepper threw 19 fewer touchdown passes in 2001, and an injured knee forced him to miss five games.
2003: Marshall Faulk
Faulk started only 10 games and rushed for 953 yards. Good for you or me, bad for Faulk. It was his first sub-1,000 yard season since 1996.
2004: Michael Vick
Vick broke his leg in the preseason and only played in the Falcons’ final five games. I haven’t followed Vick since, but I think I read that things got worse for him after that.
2006: Donovan McNabb
2007: Shaun Alexander
Alexander won MVP, rushed for almost 1,900 yards and scored 27 touchdowns pre-Madden. Post Madden: never rushed for 1,000 yards again and had 11 more touchdowns…TOTAL for his career.
2008: Vince Young
Went from future NFL stardom to glorified backup who fought with Kerry Collins the next few years just to start in Tennessee. He now backs up Michael Vick in Philly. He’s not very good at that either.
2009: Brett Favre
Two words: Picture Message.
2010: Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald
After these two met in the Super Bowl, Fitzgerald survived the following season relatively unscathed, but Polamalu missed 11 games because of injury (probably one of his 48 concussions).
2012: Peyton Hillis
Hillis came out of nowhere to shock the NFL with his bruising rushing style and deceptive speed in 2010, gaining more than 1,100 yards. But in 2011, he fell off the deep end rushing for only 587 yards and scoring three touchdowns. He even battled some mental/depression related issues.
The Madden curse doesn’t just cut you down physically, but emotionally too. It will go after your whole family like an old Vegas Mob Boss.
So here we are, on the brink of seeing quite possibly the greatest wide receiver of all time really hit his stride (yeah I said it), and it could all possibly shatter just so John Madden and EA can squeeze out a few dimes.
Lions fans have been through enough. After watching Matt Millen operate the team like a blind man driving a Caterpillar on the freeway for 10 years, things are finally starting to look up. But I guess I should have been smarter than that, known it was all too good to be true. I’d ask all of you to go vote for Cam Newton, but I don’t think there is a point. The Lions/Madden curse combo is far too palatable to be ignored.
I have already accepted my fate (and Johnson’s). I will walk into Best Buy in a few months, somberly stroll over to the display case, pick up my copy of Madden ’13 and see number 81 in the Lions’ Honolulu Blue on the cover and say what only a true Lions fan could:
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