It’s a question that has tantalized the football fans in these parts for some 55 years (and counting).
“What’s wrong with the Lions?”
At this point in their inglorious history, I can give you 1,964 reasons why the Lions aren’t winners.
That number, 1,964, happens to be the total yardage rolled up by receiver Calvin Johnson in the 2012 season. It was record-setting stuff. More yards than any NFL pass-catcher has accumulated in a single season. Ever. The previous record-holder was the great Jerry Rice, no less.
It’s a remarkable achievement, for sure. The 1,964 represents more than 120 yards per game. Just call him Two-Yards-a-Minute Calvin.
Opposing defenses looked at the Lions offense this year just like they did in the 1990s when they looked at the Lions during Barry Sanders’ heyday. Opponents looked at the Lions in 2012, and in one sweep of the arm, knocked all the skill players off the board and honed in on stopping Johnson, just as they did with Barry some 20 years ago.
With Sanders, sometimes it worked to focus strictly on him. Barry was the most elusive, trickiest, slippery runner of his time. Of any time, truth be told. Jamming seven defenders near the line of scrimmage, each with the expressed assignment of getting their hands on No. 20, sometimes worked. But not very often.
Johnson, it can be argued, is the Barry Sanders of receivers in today’s NFL. Just as Barry was better than any other runner at avoiding tackles and thus was frequently able to make defenses designed primarily to stop him look silly, so does Calvin Johnson make defensive coordinators’ game plans as ineffectual as a breath mint after Limburger cheese.
Every week the charge to the defense was “Don’t let Calvin Johnson beat you.” Sometimes coordinators settled for “Don’t let Calvin Johnson humiliate you.”
It clearly didn’t matter that Johnson was the only player on the Lions offense that you had to worry about. He got his yards anyway, 1,964 of them, shattering the record set by Rice some 17 years ago.
Here’s another number that, when combined with the 1,964, hints at why the Lions won just four games in 2012, a year after winning 10 and making the playoffs.
That number would be five.
Johnson scored just five touchdowns to go with his 1,964 yards. In 1995, when Rice caught passes totaling 1,848 yards, the 49ers receiver caught 15 touchdown passes.
The 1995 49ers won 11 games and captured their division. They were the defending Super Bowl champs. And Jerry Rice scored three times as many touchdowns with his 1,848 yards as Johnson did with his 1,964.
I started this by saying that there were 1,964 reasons why the Lions didn’t win diddly-poo (to steal from Jim Mora’s lexicon) in 2012.
As yet another lousy Lions football season went down the drain, the focus became, yet again, on hollow personal stats.
Would Johnson break Rice’s record? Would quarterback Matthew Stafford throw for 5,000 yards again? Would he set a record for most passes attempted in a single season?
These are questions asked by losers as the calendar flips to December.
Rice’s 1995 season notwithstanding, the NFL’s pedigree is such that, for the most part, seasons of terrific individual accomplishment are generally not paired with team success.
The Packers of the 1960s featured the running back tandem of Paul Hornung (Mr. Outside) and Jim Taylor (Mr. Inside). Taylor did have a monster year in 1962 when the Packers finished 13-1 and won the NFL Championship: 1,474 yards rushing (5.4 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns. Hornung never rushed for more than 681 yards in any given season of his career.
Taylor’s individual auspiciousness and the Packers’ great team success in 1962 is an anomaly. And even so, the Packers’ emphasis wasn’t on Taylor leading the league in rushing or scoring more TDs than any running back in the league. Their coach, Vince Lombardi, would have none of that. Taylor’s numbers were a byproduct of the Packers’ system and their Hall of Fame-laden offensive line.
O.J. Simpson became the first rusher in NFL history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark for a single season, in 1973. His team, the Buffalo Bills, missed the playoffs.
Eric Dickerson was the second runner to hit 2,000 yards, in 1984. His Los Angeles Rams lasted one playoff game.
The Lions’ Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards in 1997. Those Lions didn’t win a playoff game, either.
Even Rice’s 1995 49ers lasted just one playoff game in his record-setting year.
The racking up of yards by Johnson and Stafford in 2012 and the questions about whether they’d be record-setting in nature (Stafford had the chance to become just the second passer in league history to throw for 5,000+ yards twice in his career), became annoying and, worse, were symptomatic of the Lions' problems.
Break Rice’s record? Become the first receiver to hit the 2,000-yard mark? Throw for 5,000 yards again? Throw more passes in one season than anyone else?
I have one more question for you to go with those.
We were down this road before with the Lions. It happened, ironically enough, during Rice’s great 1995 season.
The ’95 Lions had Sanders running the ball, Scott Mitchell throwing it and Herman Moore and Brett Perriman catching it.
Sanders had 1,500 yards rushing, on the button. Moore caught 123 passes for 1,686 yards. Perriman had 108 catches for 1,488 yards. Mitchell threw for 4,338 yards and 32 TDs. Moore and Perriman became the first teammates to each have 100-plus catches in one season.
Yards, yards, yards. And more yards. Bodacious in nature. A whole lotta yards.
So the Lions took all those yards and went into the playoffs against the Eagles in Philadelphia. That was the embarrassing 58-37 loss, a game in which the Eagles once led 51-7.
The Lions in 2012 once again became a team boiled down to a couple of individuals chasing hollow records. Johnson’s achievement was noteworthy, but what did it do for the team’s fortunes?
1,964 yards. Five touchdowns. A TD every 400 yards, just about.