When Calvin Johnson became the biggest football star in Detroit since Barry Sanders, Lions fans certainly never imagined that he would go out the same way. Or at least, they hoped it would never come to that. But seemingly out of nowhere on Wednesday, Johnson released an official statement through the team that he was contemplating retirement and that a decision would be coming soon.
The six-time Pro Bowl receiver is just 30 years old and had 88 catches for 1,214 yards with nine touchdowns this season. But will it be really be his last in the NFL?
The idea of a player retiring with seemingly plenty of tread left is a relatively new concept, but it's not something that can be taken as lightly as Brett Favre's annual "will he, won't he" press conferences in the 2000s. After Patrick Willis retired at 30 last year, the new normal may be that some players are fine with walking away with their bodies intact once they've secured Hall of Fame status and millions of dollars.
Johnson has achieved both of those things.
Though he's never been on the winning side of a playoff game in his career, Johnson could still walk away with no regrets. Since 2011, Johnson leads the NFL in receiving yards (7,428), is second in catches (469), and fourth in touchdowns (50). In 2012, he set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards in a season, beating Jerry Rice's mark set back in 1995 with the 49ers.
But Johnson is more than just a production machine -- hence the name "Megatron" -- he's an athletic freak that at one point was so unstoppable that even when defenses had literally no other player on the Lions worth covering, it didn't matter.
Before adding Golden Tate in 2014, Detroit's second-best options were players like Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Titus Young, Tony Scheffler and Kris Durham. Double teams on Johnson were useless as he led the league in receiving in 2011 and 2012, catching 21 touchdowns over that period of time. Teams wanted to contain Johnson, but there was just one big problem: It was impossible.
At the scouting combine in 2007, Johnson was the receiver everyone wanted to get a closer look at after he caught 15 touchdowns at Georgia Tech as a junior. But just because he was productive, just because he looked good on tape, it didn't mean that he wouldn't be a bust or fail to impress once the stopwatches came out. Johnson seemed heavy at the combine -- 239 pounds -- which worried scouts, but then he used a borrowed pair of shoes to run a 4.35 40-yard dash.
Repeat: A 6-foot-5, 239-pound receiver who can run the 40 in 4.35 seconds.
Johnson sealed his fate as a top pick, falling only behind JaMarcus Russell to the Raiders. (Oops.) In a draft with Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Willis, and Darrelle Revis, somehow Johnson stood above them all.
Now he may be the second among them to step down.
When Sanders retired at the same age in 1998, one year after being named the MVP, contracts weren't as big of an issue. It also isn't that unusual to see running backs deteriorate after 30, so stepping away at that point for Sanders did make sense if he wanted to avoid a bad season, just in case. But Johnson would seem to be walking away from a lot more than the Lions other Hall of Famer.
In 2012, Johnson signed an eight-year deal worth up to $132 million with Detroit. That contract was still set to pay him a base salary just under $16 million next year, then $16.5 million in 2017. However, the Lions could cut him after that and save $17 million in salary without any dead money, which may also weigh into his decision. By walking away, Detroit will still save over $11 million against the salary cap next season, which could help them rebuild the defense and contend for the playoffs in 2016.
That is, if Johnson actually wants to call it quits. Perhaps Wednesday's news was not an admission of the fact that he's contemplating retirement, but instead a strategic move on his part to find his way out of Detroit. After all, these are the Lions we're talking about, a team that no matter how hopeful things look at any given point still hasn't won a playoff game since 1991, when Johnson was just six years old.
As a prospect, Johnson was compared to Randy Moss and Rice as examples of what kind of receiver he could be, but neither of those comps do much to predict what kind of a career Johnson would have in his thirties. Rice led the NFL in receiving at age 31, 32, and 33, while leading the league in catches at 34. He also went over 1,000 yards at ages 36, 39, and 40.
However, Moss was out of Minnesota by age 28, had a resurgence with New England at age 30, then was finished by age 33.
There's little reason to think that Johnson, coming off of another highly productive season, doesn't have at least a few more years left in him. This isn't about walking away before he's bad -- it might just be walking away while he still feels good. Or that he's been working so hard for this dream for the last 20 years or so that he realizes he has nothing left to prove and not a dollar more he needs to earn. If Johnson sees happiness on the other side of the locker room, he has plenty of incentive to walk towards it. Or, as we mentioned, it could all be a bluff.
It's just too bad that the two most notable Lions in the last 40 years didn't just dazzle the fans with the same other-worldly abilities, but might also walk away in the same manner: By leaving you wanting so much more.