By rights, Calvin Johnson never should have been a member of the Detroit Lions; never should have plied his trade for nine seasons in the Motor City; never should have had to tilt at the NFC North windmill that was the perennially excellent Green Bay Packers; never should have gone 0-16 in his sophomore year; never should have set the NFL’s single-season receiving record in Honolulu blue; never should have lost his only two playoff games, one of them on a heartbreaking non-call in the final minute; never should have had to tell the team that 2015 was (if he holds true to reports that broke Sunday night) his final season.
No, by rights Calvin Johnson should not have been a Lion. He should have been an Oakland Raider—and if he had been we wouldn’t even be bothering with the screwed-up narrative that the Lions totally wasted Johnson’s career.
Johnson was the second-overall pick in the 2007 draft. Oakland held the No. 1 pick, and—though it seems ludicrous now—had a tough time choosing between Johnson and JaMarcus Russell. The Raiders, ever the Al Davis Raiders, went with the huge kid who could run hard and throw the ball 80 yards downfield. The Lions were gleeful. They’d already told Johnson that he wouldn’t get past No. 2.
Johnson was the fourth receiver chosen with a premium pick by the Lions over five years. To say results on those players had been mixed would be charitable. There was Roy Williams, and then there were busts. Detroit called Johnson a no-brainer, but still the franchise must have felt queasy going back to a well that had been so often poisoned for them. Still, they made the right call and everyone knows it.
What will be debated now, though, is whether that call helped Johnson's career or hurt it. Did the Lions do a disservice to the greatest receiver of his generation?
The Lions are too tasty a target when a great player walks away and it’s what came after the Lions took Johnson—the winless season, the housecleaning in the front office, the selection of Matthew Stafford, the hiring of Jim Schwarz and drafting of Ndamukong Suh, the quest to build a Super Bowl contender around Johnson and truly maximize his Hall of Fame talent—that is going to be cited as proof, now that Megatron has made his Barry Sanders-esque exit, of the hapless team utterly failing its best player.
But that’s simply not true, unless your definition of failing is so broad as to be useless in discussion of the modern NFL. The Lions did their best to do right by their star, and he returned the favour. Sometimes the ending isn’t a storybook one, and sometimes we should take what we can get.
In the second year of Johnson’s career, his miserable team was 0-16 and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. By the time he was ready to quit seven seasons later, his team had been to the post-season twice in the past five seasons, and had recovered from a horrible start to 2015 to make a run at a playoff spot that was derailed only when a critical call went against them. They were also denied the franchise’s first post-season win in two decades in 2014 when… a critical call went against them. That sucks, but that’s life in the big leagues.
And this is the NFL—not the NHL or NBA. Twelve of 32 teams make the playoffs. That's barely a third of the league. But still, three seasons after Detroit became the league’s only 0-16 team ever, the Lions were back in the playoffs. And Johnson was starring in prime-time matchups on Monday Night Football, being lionized by the league in highlight reels, marketed as Megatron, one of the best nicknames in sports, and was pairing with Stafford in one of the game’s best duos.
That’s quite a speedy turnaround, honestly. It’s tempting, I know, to write Johnson’s career off as wasted because the Lions lost both his playoff appearances. It feels like he had the talent to end up enshrined as one of the all-time best to ever play. But because the Lions didn’t make it to a Super Bowl, the focus will be on how the team failed him, not on how fantastic he was.
The team didn’t fail him. They simply fell short of playoff greatness. That much is on them, sure, but acting like the Lions drove Johnson to madness; like any other franchise blessed with his greatness would have showered him in rings; like professional sports doesn’t spit out all but a few players without ever having reached the utter peak of their profession? That’s ludicrous.
Calvin Johnson won games, set records, played through pain, represented his team and city with class, put to film highlights that we’ll never forget and deserves better than to have his retirement devolve into a discussion of how his team wasted his prime. It would be the ultimate irony if the people complaining that the Lions' futility overshadowed his Hall of Fame achievements managed to hijack his retirement to whine about the Lions, too.