Nationally, Calvin Johnson is within any group of the NFL’s elite. He now holds five NFL records for single-season performance, all set on Saturday night, something that assures a spot in the national conversation. On top of his on-field performance, Johnson is also receiving all of the miscellaneous praise, from the cover of Madden ’13 to a spot in the introductions for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. And despite playing for a 4-10 team that was playing for pride, the story of Saturday night’s game was Calvin Johnson’s path towards NFL history.
Locally, Calvin Johnson is within any group of elite Lions. In the history of the Lions, only 19 players have ever had multiple All-Pro years with the team, and Calvin Johnson will be the 20th member of that club. Calvin was an All-Pro in 2011, and will do so again this year (with his record-setting statistics making him a shoo-in). Among those other players, only one other Lion has had multiple All-Pro seasons as a wide receiver, and Herman Moore is nowhere near the talent of Johnson. In just six seasons, Calvin Johnson is already in hallowed company.
Among the four Detroit-area teams, there are a surprisingly high amount of must-see athletes, and Calvin Johnson ranks up there with any of them. Right now, four guys can claim to be the best in the world at what they do. Justin Verlander, greatest pitcher in baseball; Miguel Cabrera, greatest hitter in the world; Pavel Datsyuk, hockey’s greatest puckhandler; Calvin Johnson, the greatest receiver in football. While it’s hard to rank these four, it says something when a player is just in this kind of discussion. Calvin Johnson is undoubtedly in the discussion.
Yet, the Detroit Lions are a 4-11 team, far out of the NFL’s playoff picture. Even though a Lion set many NFL records last night, ESPN’s John Buccigross repeatedly pointed out that this is a losing team, despite all the success. Lions fans called into the team’s postgame show to largely complain about the team, putting any individual accomplishments as something secondary.
What’s wrong with the team? Believe it or not, it all comes back to Calvin Johnson. Despite all the records, Johnson is actually underutilized when the Lions can use him in the end zone, as offensive coordinator Scott Linehan calls plays for just about everyone else but the best WR in the game.
Before I get into anything else, click on the following link and watch this video.
That was a short clip from ESPN, explaining the physical reasons for Calvin Johnson’s success. That’s right. Calvin has the most of every measurable, can jump higher than anyone, and can cover the space of a two-car garage. In short, there is always a spot on the field where he is simply uncoverable, where a high pass can only end in a Calvin Johnson catch or an incompletion, a basically unstoppable play.
All season long, the Lions have had trouble in short-yardage situations as they get close to the end zone, leading to a prolific offense grinding to a halt before settling for a field goal. Statistically, Detroit leads the league in yardage but is only 15th overall in points per game. Within the red zone, the Lions score a touchdown 58.5% of the time, good for 7th in the league but down from a rate of 66.1% in 2011. Those unsuccessful trips add up to a slate of close losses, with eight of Detroit’s eleven losses coming by a touchdown or less. Four of those games came down to four points or less, or the difference between a touchdown/extra point and a field goal.
In all of those circumstances, the Lions had the greatest wide receiver in the world, someone genetically superior to everyone else on the field…and the plays were never called for him. With Calvin Johnson on the field, someone who can literally out jump anyone, the ball did not come his way. Game after game, the Lions were stopped just short of a touchdown, did not throw to Calvin, settled for the field goal, and lost because of it. Don’t believe me? Here’s a brief breakdown of the egregious Lions losses.
- At San Francisco in Week 2, Lions kicker Jason Hanson kicked four field goals, from the San Francisco yard lines of 20, 23, 22, and 30. The Lions scored one touchdown, a reception from Brandon Pettigrew. In the twelve plays before those four FG’s (the ones run on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down), Calvin had two balls thrown to him, both short of the line of scrimmage, none in the end zone. The Lions lost by 8.
- At Tennessee in Week 3, Hanson kicked four more field goals, from the Tennessee yard lines of 29, 34, 15, and 8. The Lions scored three touchdowns, with one caught by Calvin, 3 yards out. In the twelve plays before the FG’s, Calvin had zero balls thrown his way. The Lions lost by 3 points, an overtime field goal.
- Against Minnesota in Week 4, Hanson kicked two field goals, from the Minnesota 22 and 13. Matthew Stafford ran in the Lions’ only touchdown, a one-yard score. In the six plays before the FG’s, Calvin had one ball thrown towards him. The Lions lost by 6.
- At Chicago in Week 7, the Lions only scored one touchdown with 30 seconds to play, and lost 13-7. On 4th-and-goal, on Chicago’s 3 yard line, Matthew Stafford’s pass went to Ryan Broyles, the Bears intercepted it, and that pretty much sealed the game. The Lions lost by 6.
- Against Green Bay in Week 11, Hanson kicked two field goals, from the Green Bay 12 and 9. The Lions scored two touchdowns, one on a 25-yard pass to Calvin. In the six plays before the FG’s, Calvin had one ball thrown his way. The Lions lost by 4.
- Against Houston on Thanksgiving, the Lions were robbed with a terrible rule, despite four touchdowns (one by Calvin Johnson, from 22 yards out). In overtime though, only one ball went to Calvin in 14 offensive plays. The Lions lost by 3, on an overtime field goal.
- Against Indianapolis in Week 13, Hanson kicked four field goals, from the Indianapolis 29, 15, 33, and 13. The Lions scored three touchdowns, with one coming on a 46-yard pass to Calvin. In the twelve plays before the FG’s, Calvin had three balls thrown towards him. The Lions lost by 2.
- Against Atlanta on Saturday night, Hanson kicked three field goals, from the Atlanta 16, 20, and 2. The Lions scored one touchdown, a one-yard Mikel Leshoure run. In the eight plays before the FG’s, Calvin had zero balls thrown to him. While Detroit did lose by 13, that last field goal from the 2-yard line could have been a game-tying TD. The Lions opted to kick, the Falcons scored a touchdown on their next drive, and the game was never that close again.
Those eight losses comprise half of the season. In half of the total season, the Lions could have won a game, and fell just short. And in those eight games, the Lions could have gone for an essential touchdown by throwing it to Calvin Johnson – someone who is literally unstoppable in that kind of situation – and they only chose to do so in only 8 of 70 chances. Sure, those eight chances weren’t successful, or else the Lions wouldn’t have eventually settled for the field goal. But given the ability of your best player, someone who can out jump anyone, the Lions could not have thrown some high balls that only one man can bring down?
On top of that, notice the touchdowns that Calvin did score in those games. Despite being the statistically and physically best player anywhere, Calvin Johnson only had four touchdowns in those eight games, with only one of those coming inside the red zone (a 3-yard score in Week 3, in September). In all of 2012, Calvin only has five touchdowns! In 2011, he had 16, 9 of those from inside the red zone!
Scott Linehan, who is calling these plays, simply does not call Calvin Johnson’s number when the Lions get close to scoring, despite having the best possible player out there. Instead, we get some short passes to every other wide receiver and tight end, plus some runs up the middle, and a field goal. And a loss at the end of the day.
If the ball comes to Calvin Johnson, he’ll catch it. Calvin leads the team, by far, in every applicable stat from receptions to yardage to balls targeted towards him. He is so clearly the best wide receiver on the team, and in all of football. Once again, Calvin Johnson is literally unstoppable, uncoverable, and is almost an unfair advantage.
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So why not simply throw it to him on almost every play in the end zone?
That bad play calling is the reason why Detroit is 4-11, and out of the playoff picture. If those games above feature different play calling, the discussion around so many local holiday parties would be centered around the NFC playoff picture. Flip those eight games, and the Lions would be in contention for a bye week and have clinched the division title. Flip just five of the eight, and the Lions are in the playoffs. Instead, the Lions are first in every offensive statistic but last in the NFC North.
Granted, the Lions do have other weak spots. The defensive secondary is atrocious, and the Lions must draft some cornerbacks and safeties in April. The running game is somewhat poor, with a variety of fill-ins to replace Jahvid Best. Both of these areas hurt the team, but both were bad at the start of the year. There was no in-game choice to have bad cornerbacks, it’s simply the roster for this season.
On the other hand, to make the decision not to throw towards an unstoppable wide receiver is simply stupid. There’s no reason for it, nothing to build on. It’s only handicapping your own team, which led to loss after loss.
Calvin Johnson will go down in the NFL record books, as one of the league’s greatest wide receivers. Maybe even the greatest. If only the Lions would try to score points with him.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.