How does one fully appreciate genius? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time because I never feel like I’ve seen enough football intelligence.
Whether it’s Tom Brady or Peyton Manning navigating through puny defenses on prime-time television or J.J. Watt tearing through supposed blocking schemes that are geared to stop him, I feel like I’m missing out on something tasty every second that I’m not watching. I also feel this way about Calvin Johnson, the Detroit Lions’ star wide receiver.
In case you missed it on Saturday night, Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s longtime — 17 years to be exact — record for receiving yards in a season. Rice set the record in 1995 when he amassed a then-unfathomable 1,848 yards in 16 weeks of play. With 225 yards against the Atlanta Falcons, Johnson brought his record breaking total to 1,892 yards and he has a game in hand.
For a second of nostalgia, my first exposure to the Lions’ receiver was when he was at Georgia Tech. He had a rather hopeless quarterback throwing to him and his head coach was Chan Gailey — who is now probably the least popular guy in the pipeline connecting Buffalo and Toronto. Johnson wore No. 21, which was rather odd but typical of studly college players, and he made tons of circus catches that were simply unfair to his competition. His diving reception at midfield against the Miami Hurricanes, a favorite team of mine, in 2005 was simply ridiculous. The touchdown that has always stood out to me the most, however, was his double move against, I think, Georgia near the end of his collegiate career. He baited the cornerback into what I recall to be a curl route before he exploded up the field again and caught a wide open touchdown.
It was then and only then when I thought he was the best draft prospect I’d ever seen, which I still believe to be true today.
Coming out of school and in the 2007 draft, Johnson was coveted by almost everyone. He was noted for his humble demeanor, a rarity at the wide receiver position and not common with athletes in general, and the loads of talent he possessed. In a New York Times story dated in 2007, aptly titled “Johnson Has No Baggage and a Seat In First Class,” Judy Battista sat down with Johnson, who softly stated that he was just “riding the wave”. He also received some accolades from notable NFL evaluators.
[Gil] Brandt compares Johnson physically with Terrell Owens, before adding quickly that Johnson does not drop passes. Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden, who is thought to covet Johnson (the Buccaneers pick fourth), joked at the recent N.F.L. meetings that he tried to find something Johnson could not do. Gruden patted his head and rubbed his stomach at the same time, wondering if Johnson could do that. Raiders Coach Lane Kiffin said that Johnson “seems perfect.”
Bruce Arians, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive coordinator, said: “In my 15 years, he is probably the best-looking prospect at his position that I have seen. His numbers are astronomical, but his play is even better. This guy is special.”
Whereas an alarming number of athletes at Johnson’s position have failed, giving it a higher failure rate than that of the quarterback position, he has shined as bright as the sun in what has largely been the gloomiest of situations with his team.
Since coming into the league in 2007, he has caught nearly 500 receptions and collected over 7,700 yards, which averages out to an impressive 80 receptions and nearly 1,300 yards yearly. What’s perhaps most impressive about the totals and averages is that it could be argued Johnson hasn’t yet reached the level of dominance he’s capable of because of his quarterback situations. In years past, he’s had an aging Jon Kitna, a woeful Dan Orlovsky, a solid backup in Shaun Hill and a not-so-solid passer in Daunte Culpepper throwing him the ball. And then there’s Matthew Stafford this year, who has more talent than any of the above but hasn’t been in his finest form this season.
On a 26-yard reception against the Falcons on Saturday night, both were in form Jerry Rice’s long-standing record came crashing down.
Initially lined up at his usual wide alignment, Johnson cut down his split and stood next to the slot receiver. He was going to be running a shallow crossing route underneath the near defensive back and behind the middle linebacker. The rest of the receivers were going to mainly serve as clearouts, with the exception of the slot at the top of the screen, who would be running a dig route.
At the snap, Johnson released into his route after the slot receiver released into his. Johnson went underneath the defensive back, who trailed him in what appeared to be Cover 4 (Quarters) coverage, and then worked his way behind the middle linebacker. Once he cleared the middle linebacker, he was wide open for Matthew Stafford to throw him the ball for an easy catch and 26-yard gain past the first down marker.
After the game, the great Jerry Rice stated:
“It’s going to go down (tonight). This guy’s just amazing,” Rice said. “You never want your record to be broken, but if anyone’s going to do it, I prefer Megatron to do it.”
Johnson was once compared to Terrell Owens by personnel men, but he’s much more talented than Owens and now has multiple records to show it, placing him in the same breath as Rice. However, there’s still one game to be played, and if Johnson records 108 receiving yards, he’ll break 2,000 yards on the season.
That’s one record that won’t draw any comparisons.