The Mysterious Career of Calvin Johnson
A first ballot 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Calvin Johnson was one of the most polarizing athletes of all time. One of the greatest Wide Receivers to ever play in the NFL decides to retire in bizarre fashion, at the age of 30 years old with four seasons remaining on his contract.
In college Calvin Johnson played in his home state of Georgia, playing three phenomenal seasons as a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket. Becoming the first Yellow Jacket to ever be elected to three First-Team All-ACC teams. In his last season at Georgia Tech, Johnson won the 2006 Fred Biletnikoff Award, ACC Player of the Year; and led the Yellow Jackets to the Coastal Carolina Title.
As imagined, Calvin Johnson was highly touted as a top prospect coming into the 2007 NFL Draft. In addition to a great collegiate career Johnson ran a staggering 4.35-second 40-yard dash and a 42.5 vertical jump. Standing at 6’5” and weighing in at 237-pounds Johnson was built like a Tight End but had the freakish athleticism for a Wideout.
Megatron is Detroit Bound
The Detroit Lions drafted Calvin Johnson second overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, after going 3-and-13 the previous year. The Lions would improve in 2007 going 7-and-9 falling to third place in the NFC North, missing the playoffs entirely. Johnson however finished his rookie season with 48 catches, 756 receiving yards, four touchdown receptions, and 15.8 yards per catch; good enough for the 10th best in the NFL. Starting 10 games for Detroit, a preview of what was soon come for the Lions.
In 2008, the Detroit Lions became the first team to go winless, an embarrassing 0-and-16 season. The Lions had an abnormal five separate Quarterbacks throwing to Calvin Johnson. However, Johnson individually had a great sophomore season. Improving to an impressive 78 catches, 1,331 receiving yards, and a league-high 12 receiving touchdowns. Also, increasing to 17.1 yards per reception. The fact Johnson posted these numbers from five mediocre passers makes his stats stand out even more. In 2008, Johnson was given the nickname “Megatron” by his teammates. Referring to his near robotic athleticism. Despite this amazing season, Johnson was not elected a Pro Bowler, likely due to Detroit’s awful season.
The Detroit Lions obtained the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Choosing Quarterback Matthew Stafford from Georgia to partner with Calvin Johnson. The connection and chemistry between the two took time. It was evident too, as the Lions would go 8-and-24 over the next two seasons. As Stafford only started in a total of 13 games those two seasons. Despite Stafford’s absence, Johnson still shined once again earning his first Pro Bowl nod in 2010. With 77 catches, 1,120 receiving yards, and 12 receiving touchdowns.
Over the next three seasons, Calvin Johnson would dominate NFL defenses on a whole other level. Leading the league in receiving yards twice, a staggering 1,681 yards in 2011 and 1,964 yards in 2012. Also, leading the league in receptions in 2012 with 122 catches. In 26 games, Johnson recorded 100 or more receiving yards from 2011 to 2013. Johnson would earn two First-Team All-Pro selections, a Second-Team All-Pro selection, and three consecutive Pro Bowl nods in that stretch.
The next two seasons would be Calvin Johnson’s last. Johnson would go on to have two more seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards. Catching eight touchdowns in 2014 and nine touchdowns in 2015. Still playing at an elite level, Johnson was selected to the Pro Bowl both seasons. Johnson’s final game would come in a Wild Card matchup against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington. Where Johnson would catch five passes for 85 yards in a 24-to-20 loss to Dallas.
At the age of 30, Calvin Johnson would announce his retirement from the NFL during the 2016 offseason. The shocking retirement was a surprise to everyone. It was hard to believe that Johnson would walk away from the game while still in his prime. Fresh off of a solid 2015 season, Johnson became a headline across sports networks. Many suspected an eventual return back into the NFL but it never happened. Johnson drew many comparisons to fellow former Detroit Lion and Hall of Famer Barry Sanders for the sudden retirement.
As a Lion Calvin Johnson had seven seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards. Leading the NFL in receiving yards in one season twice, receptions in 2012, and receiving touchdowns in 2008. Johnson led the Lions in receptions six consecutive years and in receiving yards seven times. Johnson has two notable NFL records, most receiving yards in one season with 1,964 yards in 2012 and eight consecutive games with over 100 yards receiving. Also, Johnson has Lions franchise career records of 731 catches and 11,619 receiving yards.
Stigma Between the Lions and Johnson
Calvin Johnson retired with four remaining years left on his contract with the Detroit Lions. In the 2012 offseason, Johnson signed an extension with the franchise that included a signing bonus. The Lions forced Johnson to repay $1.6 million dollars of his signing bonus back to the franchise. In 1999, Barry Sanders had to do the exact same thing and repay the Lions a portion of the signing bonus. Which is uncommon for franchise players to repay. The Lions are an exception and the situation gets stranger.
Along with repaying the franchise, Calvin Johnson was offered to commit 28 hours at Detroit Lions’ events each year. To pay Johnson $500,000 dollars per year for three years. The remaining $1,000,000 would go to a charity of his choice but Johnson declined. Including five hours at a game where the Lions would honor Johnson with a jersey retirement ceremony. It has been over four years since Johnson retired and the Lions are yet to announce any plans of jersey retirement.
With as much of an impact, Calvin Johnson has made on the NFL and let alone the Lions themselves. The Lions are yet to treat Johnson with respect. On the podcast ALL OF THE SMOKE hosted by former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, Johnson spoke out on the retirement process.
Originally Calvin Johnson wanted to retire in the 2015 season saying this “I was going to retire after my eighth season. I was like mam, I’m done. I can’t do it no more. They’re blowing up the team, my body is aching, I lost my range of motion.” But his father wanted him to play another season, so he did.
In 2015, Calvin Johnson approached the Lions’ front office requesting a departure. Telling them that if they don’t move him out of Detroit he is retiring. The Lions ignored his request and refused to let him go. Despite getting trade offers from other teams, the Lions didn’t want to satisfy Johnson.
Again in the ALL THE SMOKE podcast Calvin Johnson summed up his feelings saying this “I don’t have a love for it anymore. It wasn’t worth it to me anymore in Detroit.”
After nine seasons with Detroit, the Lions were too selfish to pay their respects to Calvin Johnson. As the face of the franchise for so many years. Playing on the 0-and-16 team from 2008 and facing all sorts of knee injuries. Also, enduring the mediocrity of the Lions franchise as a whole. Only getting Johnson to the playoffs twice in his career, both ending in first-round exits.
In an interview this September with Graham Bensinger, Calvin Johnson said this “I’m not saying they got to repay me the $1.6 [million] all upfront, but they need to figure out a way to do it, and not have me work for it, because I already did the work for it.”
Calvin Johnson deserves more respect from the Lions and he has spoken on the Lions having a “bad energy” when he was around the facility. As clearly Johnson and the Lions were on bad terms and are still on bad terms today.
Home of the Braves: Part One
A series on how "America's Team" became the team to forget.