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Last March, Calvin Johnson shocked the NFL world by suddenly retiring at the age of 30. Johnson was still in his prime and was one of the absolute best wide receivers in the NFL over his nine-year career.
He retired with 731 receptions for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns. He is currently 29th in all time receiving yards. His sudden departure left Detroit Lions fans reeling.
Back in 1999 they lost all-world running back Barry Sanders to a sudden early retirement. Losing Johnson to the same scenario left many Lions fans wondering what they had done to anger the football gods.
The Lions didn’t dwell on it long. They bounced back to a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance. Matt Stafford actually improved without Megatron to throw to. Somehow, despite losing Johnson, they found a way to get better. With things looking up in Detroit, it is Johnson’s legacy that is surprisingly sliding downhill.
Last week, Johnson made news with his comments about his retirement. He told the media that he retired because he didn’t see the Lions making a Superbowl anytime soon, even referring to his repeated efforts to get the team to a championship without significant improvement (the definition of insanity).
It was an odd candid moment from a player who has been known for keeping things close to the vest. More importantly, Johnson’s comments have the air of revisionist history and under even minor scrutiny, they don’t hold up.
Johnson’s comments paint the image of a player who wanted nothing more than to win. A desire to win a championship that was so strong that the inability to do so proved to be too much for him to handle.
Unable to achieve his ultimate goal, Johnson chose to leave the game rather than deal with the frustration any longer. However, nothing in the history of Johnson’s career suggests this is the case.
There are some professional athletes who simply want to make as much money as they can, while they can. Then you have others for whom winning a championship is the only goal worth chasing. There’s nothing wrong with being either one.
The problem with what Johnson said last week is that his career history proves him to be the former but he wants us to remember him as the latter. Johnson can’t have his cake and eat it too, despite his best efforts.
Players who want a ring above all else will do things to make that happen. They can take less money to allow the cap space needed to build a more competitive team. They can demand trades to force themselves to a situation with a higher likelihood of winning. There is also the option of choosing to sign with a different team during free agency to try and chase their goal. Calvin Johnson did none of these things.
In March of 2012, Johnson signed an eight-year deal that was worth up to $132 million. It made him the highest paid receiver in the NFL at the time.
The Lions had just come off of a 10-6 season where they had made the playoffs. Johnson played four years of that contract, only producing one wining season in that stretch.
Detroit certainly had its struggles in those years but it was not for a lack of trying. The Lions worked on developing Stafford, signed Golden Tate to make teams pay for double covering Johnson and they drafted Eric Ebron as a middle of the field threat.
The Lions made the moves to try and win. Johnson’s comments imply that he isn’t willing to recognize those facts.
There is nothing wrong with taking the maximum amount of money possible. When Johnson signed his deal in 2012, he was the best wide receiver in the NFL and was paid accordingly.
Despite the massive cap hit Johnson accounted for, Detroit still made significant efforts to build an arsenal around him. If Johnson felt the team wasn’t going anywhere, some of that blame lies with him.
He took the most money he could get and in doing so, he made it harder for the Lions to build a winner. If he wanted to win so badly, he could have taken less money.
Instead of signing that contract, he could have tried to latch onto a perennial contender like the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers. However, he chose the best deal for himself. That in and of itself is fine but Johnson doesn’t get to have it both ways.
During his comments last week, Johnson also mentioned that he didn’t care for the way the Lions treated him on his way out. This is where he is truly out of line.
Johnson signed that contract and only fulfilled half of it. He gave up on Detroit, not the other way around. Did he really expect there to be no hard feelings after such a betrayal?
Calvin Johnson will likely go to the Hall of Fame one day. Despite only playing nine seasons, he put up tremendous statistical numbers.
If Johnson hadn’t made his comments last week, he would eventually be remembered fondly as an incredible talent who left us wondering what else he could have accomplished.
He opted to be petty.
Johnson would have us believe that he retired young because the Lions failed him. From where I’m sitting, the Lions took care of him financially while trying to build a winner around him. He quit and now he wants to blame the Lions for his decision.
A week ago, Calvin Johnson’s legacy consisted of highlight catches, remarkable production and walking away with his health. Today his legacy still has all of those things with one addition, a complete lack of personal accountability.