Calvin Johnson: The biggest "what if" in NFL history
When talking about the greatest of all-time in any sport, the player is going to vary based on an individual's subjective opinion. That is no different when it comes to football and the greatest wide receivers to ever play the game. With that being said – and feel free to disagree with me here – but my top five wide receivers in NFL history are, in order:
- 20 year career
- 1,549 receptions, 1st all-time
- 22,895 receiving yards, 1st all-time
- 197 touchdowns, 1st all-time
2. Terrell Owens
- 15 year career
- 1,078 receptions, 6th all-time
- 15,934 yards, 3rd all-time
- 153 receiving touchdowns, 3rd all-time
3. Randy Moss
- 14 year career
- 982 receptions, 13th all-time
- 15,292 yards, 4th all-time
- 156 receiving touchdowns, 2nd all-time
- Holds the record for receiving touchdowns in a single season, with 23 in 2007
4. Larry Fitzgerald
- 17 year career
- 1,432 receptions, 2nd all-time
- 17,492 receiving yards, 2nd all-time
- 121 receiving touchdowns, 6th all-time
5. Calvin Johnson
- 9 year career
- 731 catches, 81.2 per season
- 11,619 receiving yards, 1,291 per season
- 83 receiving touchdowns, 9.2 per season
- Holds the record for receiving yards in a single season with 1,964 in 2012
The glaring disparity of course between Johnson and the top four receivers, is the length of their careers. Johnson, or "Megatron," as he was dubbed, called it a career after just nine years in the NFL. Injuries played a large factor in his decision, as he dealt with knee, ankle and finger issues throughout his career. The punishment his body had taken from playing the game and the losing culture in Detroit – he's quoted as saying "it would have been harder to walk away if I was on a contending team"– ultimately led to his decision to retire at the age of 30 in 2016.
Back to the "Megatron" nickname: Johnson had a rare combination of size (6'5 and 239 lbs), catching ability, speed (40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds), strength, leaping ability (43 inch vertical) and body control. He was nicknamed "Megatron" after the Transformers character. The name was given to him by Lions teammate Roy Williams and caught on with fans. I would say the nickname is appropriate when you make catches like this look routine.
All the abilities of a bonafide star receiver are on display here. The high point catch of the ball with two hands and then transferring it to one hand to keep it away from the defender, the field awareness and footwork to get the right foot down inbounds and then drag the left toe inbounds and the freakish hand-size and grip strength to be able to essentially squeeze the tip of the football with a couple of fingers.
"Megatron" made a career out of using his inhuman abilities to make defenders look silly, all while being "the guy" in Detroit. The best receiver that Johnson ever played alongside is arguably Roy Williams. And if you couple that with the utter ineptness of the Lions' running attack that hasn't had a star since Barry Sanders was toting the rock for them in the 90's, and defenses knew who the ball was going to every single game – #81.
Didn't matter though, you could double team him:
Heck, even triple team him:
Again, it simply did not matter what you did or how you schemed against Johnson, you were not going to stop him, you could only hope to contain him.
In today's NFL, there are a handful of exceptionally talented receivers: Davante Adams, Deandre Hopkins, Michael Thomas and Stefon Diggs come to mind. These players demand double-teams from an opposing defensive secondary every night, but these double teams are usually some form of an inside-outside game with a corner and a safety (if the corner takes the inside shade of the receiver, the safety will have his help over the top and will be on the outside shade of the receiver). This is essentially to bracket the receiver and hopefully take him out of the game and make the offense throw to someone else. That's all fine and dandy, but I implore you to try and find another receiver in NFL history that was covered like this, in the picture below.
You would typically only see something like this on a punt return team. Two players lined up to double-team the outside "gunner" on the punt team from getting downfield. This, however is Calvin Johnson drawing two guys assigned to cover him. Both of these instances are near the goal line, where Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford made a living throwing jump-ball fades to Johnson for touchdowns. Teams likely got tired of being embarrassed in this fashion so they deployed this new defensive strategy, and to this day I have never seen another receiver covered in this unique way. I mean here's an example of what happened when you single covered Johnson in the red zone:
In this instance the defender has almost perfect coverage, but Stafford throws across his body to a spot where only Johnson can catch it and he lays out for a spectacular catch.
Did I also mention that he ran a 4.35 40 yard dash at the combine?
That is a 6'5" 240 pound Decepticon outrunning an entire defense.
In terms of Calvin Johnson being my biggest "what if" player in NFL history, let me make my case here.
Let's extrapolate Johnson's average career numbers over 14 years, the same amount of time that my #3 receiver, Randy Moss played:
- 1,136 receptions, passes Moss' 982 by a wide margin
- 18,074 yards, passes Moss' 15,292 yards by a wide margin
- 129 touchdowns
Now, let's extrapolate those numbers over 15 years, the same amount of time that my #2 receiver, Terrell Owens played:
- 1,218 receptions, passed Owens' 1,078 by a good amount
- 19,365 receiving yards, passes Owens' 15,934 by leaps and bounds
- 138 touchdowns
And finally if we extrapolate the numbers over 20 years, the same amount of time that my #1 receiver Jerry Rice played:
- 1,624 receptions would surpass Rice's record of 1,549
- 25,820 receiving yards would shatter Rice's record of 22,895
- 184 touchdowns would place Johnson second all-time behind only Rice's 197
Now, players tend to decline at a certain age, as even the great Jerry Rice did during his final two seasons in the league where his receiving statistics were significantly lower than his career average. So what if this happened to "Megatron?"
Even if I subtract 60 receptions, 2000 receiving yards, and 20 touchdowns from his total, Johnson would still hold the #1 spot for receptions (1,564), receiving yards (23,820) and maintain the 2nd most touchdowns (164).
I realize that this all assuming that Johnson could get over his nagging injuries that plagued him throughout his career and that he keeps playing consistently at a Pro Bowl level for the last 11 years of his career, but hey that's why this is called a "what if" article.
I am of the firm belief that none of Jerry Rice's all-time receiving records may be ever be touched, his longevity and consistency in my opinion makes him the greatest to ever play the game (so sorry Tom Brady fans). If, however there was to be any player – or Transformer in disguise – that could scratch at the surface of those seemingly unattainable records, it would have been Calvin Johnson.
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