Johnson came into this league a too-good-to-be-true prospect: As tall as they come, as fast as they get, as explosive as anyone could ever imagine and an eye-popping catcher of the ball. As unbelievable as he was on the field, his college head coach, Chan Gailey, insisted Johnson was an "even better person," per the official Georgia Tech athletics site.
In a decision the Oakland Raiders would come to rue, they took quarterback JaMarcus Russell over the ultimate can't-miss prospect—and Johnson went to Detroit.
His incredible talent immediately shone through injuries, turnover at the coach and quarterback position and the NFL's first 0-16 season. Once Johnson and 2009 No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford were finally healthy enough to play together regularly, their mutual production exploded.
Though Johnson was unquestionably as big and fast as advertised, there were nagging doubts about his polish, his craft and his completeness as a receiver. Even as Johnson dominated the NFL, some still didn't quite believe he was equal to the sum of his parts.
Johnson won everyone over with an incredible three-season run from 2011 to 2013. He averaged 101 catches for 1,712 yards and 11 touchdowns in those years and was named first-team All-Pro at the end of each of those seasons. In terms of yards and touchdowns, per Pro-Football-Reference.com research, it's the most productive three-year stretch for any receiver in NFL history.
It wasn't enough.
After helping the Lions get back to the playoffs in 2011, Johnson broke the single-season passing yardage record in 2012—but the Lions collapsed to 4-12 and played losing ball again in 2013, leading to another coaching staff change and plenty of offensive turnover.
A new offensive coaching staff, a struggling Stafford and nagging lower-body injuries continued to cap Johnson's production; the continued failures of everyone around Johnson led to a dramatic midseason house-cleaning in Detroit in 2015. Shortly after the season, ESPN's Ed Werder reported Johnson was contemplating retirement (via ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein).
As stunning as it was that Johnson would lay down his unprecedented set of tools with work left to be done, it wasn't necessarily surprising.
In the wake of the NFL combine, the NFL world is still buzzing about times and inches and reps and frames. Nine years ago, Johnson's measurables redefined freaky:
Johnson placed in the 99th percentile for vertical jump, 100th for broad jump and 92nd for 40-yard dash. If he were 5'8", 180 pounds, he'd have been a drool-worthy athlete. At 6'5", 239 pounds, he dwarfed plenty of guys who traded speed for size. The man teammate Roy Williams dubbed Megatron is a Madden create-a-player, a human cheat code.
Greg Gabriel, National Football Post analyst and decades-long NFL scouting veteran, took to Twitter to affirm Johnson's predraft exhibitions needed to be seen to be believed:
Once Johnson got into the league, it was no different.
Playing in an era of unprecedented wideout size, speed and productivity, Johnson compares favorably to all his contemporaries. Even the best players with the most eye-popping combinations of height, weight, speed and explosion can't touch Megatron.
Take Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones. The only one of the group who can match any aspect of Johnson's tale of the tape is Jones, who ran the 40-yard dash 0.01 seconds faster...at two inches shorter and 19 pounds lighter:
|NFL Receivers, by the Measuring Stick|
|Larry Fitzgerald||6'2 7/8"||225||4.48||38"||-|
|Mockdraftables.com, The New York Times|
But Johnson was far more than a collection of numbers.
When he came to Detroit, his impact was immediate; he tasted victory, revenge and the end zone in his career-opening game against the Raiders. He put up eight catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games combined.
In his third, though, Johnson exploded into the air to go up over two Philadelphia Eagles defenders and came down awkwardly on his back. The soreness limited him for the rest of the season; he later admitted to the late Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com he was popping two Vicodin a game just to keep the pain manageable.
In 2008, Johnson again suffered silently as the Lions went through the worst season in the history of professional football. The offensive coordinator he played under as a rookie, Mike Martz, had been fired before the season and not replaced. He was stuck trying to catch passes from a motley crew of Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and latter-day Daunte Culpepper—but Johnson still caught 78 of them for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns.
At the end of the "run for none," other budding superstar wideouts might have complained about the disastrous turn the franchise had taken (see: Johnson, Keyshawn). Not Calvin Johnson; he remained quiet, classy and committed even as fan protests led to the ouster of CEO Matt Millen and just about everyone underneath him.
Everything should have changed in 2009, when new head coach Jim Schwartz drafted Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall. Stafford's own struggles with injuries, though, helped cap Johnson's output at 984 yards—the last time Johnson would ever fall short of the 1,000-yard mark.
In the first week of 2010, Johnson made the miraculous touchdown non-catch that led to the rule that now bears his name (pun intended). It set the tone for the rest of his career: His incredible ability let him make catches no one else in the history of the game could, but all too often they made no difference in the W column.
Johnson had finally reached his incredible potential, putting up pinball numbers week after week. Yet in 2011, Hall of Fame wideout Cris Carter famously declined to put Johnson in his personal top five when appearing on ESPN radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning, per ESPN.com.
"Calvin Johnson, he's very, very good at Madden and Tecmo Bowl or whatever they're playing now. But on film, when I watch film, and I break down the film, he's not to the point of these guys yet. That doesn't mean he can't play. He just not there yet."
The statements were controversial enough at the time, but Johnson took the high road and let his play speak for him. He led the league in receiving that season and followed it up by breaking Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yardage record in 2012.
Johnson so thoroughly changed Carter's mind that the analyst called Johnson and Stafford "the absolute best" duo in the league on ESPN's NFL Live, per ProFootballTalk.com. He got paid like it, too, signing a record eight-year, $132 million extension that would still be the league's richest had Johnson not retired.
But the Lions' struggles became Johnson's struggles, too.
Stafford's maddening inconsistencies and backsliding mechanics robbed the offense (and Johnson) of opportunities to score. Their 7-9 finish in 2013 led to another head coach firing, another offensive coordinator, another reset button hit on an expensive offense.
A long list of would-be wingmen to draw coverage away from Johnson struggled to get it done: Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Derrick Williams, Titus Young, Ryan Broyles. Despite a lot of draft picks and free-agent dollars thrown at the position, Johnson repeatedly found himself starting across from undrafted wannabes like Kris Durham and Jeremy Ross.
Despite the arrival of offensive-minded head coach Jim Caldwell, free-agent wideout Golden Tate and fellow athletic freak Eric Ebron in 2014, the Lions offense actually scored 4.6 fewer points per game than they had in 2013. Nagging ankle and knee injuries repeatedly limited Johnson's availability; even when he was on the field, it seemed he was hardly in the game plan.
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Fan and media outcry about Johnson's lack of reps and targets contributed to the firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi; the promotion of Jim Bob Cooter to replace him gave Johnson his fifth offensive coordinator in nine years.
Somehow, despite all this, Johnson didn't complain. He didn't grouse. He didn't whine for the ball or stomp around on the sidelines. He continued to lead in the privacy of the locker room, and he turned in his sixth straight 1,000-yard season on the field. Even in calling an end to his incredible career, he declined to make a fuss over himself.
"Those who know me best will understand," Johnson said in his retirement statement, via CBS Detroit, "that I choose not to have a press conference for this announcement."
The question many will ask is how the Lions will try to replace Johnson, but there's simply no replacing him. No other draft prospect can possibly embody his once-in-a-lifetime potential. No free agent that productive would ever hit the market. Even if there were a player who could match his ability, none could match his character. His last NFL coach, Jim Caldwell, echoed Gailey, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press:
The eight-game stretch Stafford played under Cooter after the bye week was arguably the best of his life. Tate caught more passes than Johnson in the last two seasons, for nearly as many yards. The Lions offense seems set to go forward, but "forward" will have to be in a different direction.
Maybe Johnson retires with a little still left on the table. Maybe we were robbed of another 1,000-yard season, or two or three. Maybe his totals will fall a little short of the best of this pass-happy generation of receivers. But there's no doubt we were all lucky to watch Johnson do what he did like nobody ever had before, and nobody ever quite will again.