|Calvin Johnson continues his pursuit of Jerry Rice's NFL record for receiving yards in a season. (US Presswire)|
Football may be a team sport, but there's no denying that the reason people are still paying attention to the 2012 Detroit Lions boils down to one player, and one number.
The player is Calvin Johnson. The number is 182 -- as in the number of yards Johnson needs to break Jerry Rice's single-season record of 1,848 receiving yards, set in 1995.
As the season draws to a close, Johnson's chase of Rice's record has become a placebo for the team's unfulfilled expectations for fans and media alike. Even several of Johnson's teammates say they think it would be special to be a part of a record-breaking season.
In fact, it seems the only person who isn't consumed by Johnson's pursuit of history is Johnson himself.
“The [unfulfilled] expectations we had this year overshadows a lot of things,” he said. “Especially some individual accomplishments.”
Johnson's desire to focus on the team's failings rather than his own success may seem like spin designed to bolster his image as a player with a team-first attitude.
Unlike some other high-profile receivers in the game, Johnson actually seems to take more pride in his teammates' successes than he does in his own.
“I dare say if we were able to win the last two games and he didn't get the record, he would still be very content and he would still be very happy that we won those games,” coach Jim Schwartz said, before adding that he thought a major factor in Johnson's ability to chase Rice's mark was that he didn't allow himself to get caught up in the fervor surrounding his play.
“[The record chase] really hasn't been a story for [Johnson] particularly,” Schwartz said. “It's been a league story, it's been a local story, but it's not like he's sitting around thinking during game plan meetings about getting records. What he's thinking about is going and doing what he can to contribute to a win and how he can best do that.
“As a result of that, he's stayed on track [to get the record]. He's battled through injuries. He's seen a lot of other players on offense not be on the field with him and he's had to shoulder a bigger load. But he's up for it every single week and he's been consistent from week to week.”
The consistency Schwartz referenced hasn't been lost on Johnson's opponents. He has tied another NFL record by gaining at least 100 yards in seven straight games, and Falcons' coach Mike Smith says he thinks few NFL teams have the capability to limit Johnson's impact.
“I can assure you that every team that's played the Detroit Lions, one of their ‘musts' that they go in and feel like they must be able to contain is Calvin Johnson,” Smith said. "Up to this point I don't think anybody's done a very good job of it. His numbers are just out of this world.”
Johnson's dominance in recent weeks has forced some teams to walk the fine line between solid defense, and breaking the rules outright to stop him. That delicate balance was on display in Week 15, when the Cardinals treated Johnson like a gunner on the punt team, with some defenders taking liberties with the rules.
“[Cardinals' defenders] held him,” OC Scott Linehan said. “I guess you can hold him at the line of scrimmage, I don't know. That was their plan. It definitely discourages your ability to get a guy the ball.”
Not normally one to complain about officials' decisions, Johnson says he's not afraid to make referees aware of the situation if he feels he's being fouled on a play in an attempt to gauge the standards by which that day's game will be called.
“[Defenders] get away with a lot of stuff,” he said. “That's part of the game. A lot of times if they're holding early in the game, I'll go talk to the referee and ask ‘Are you just going to let us play today?' just to clarify and find out for myself. If [they're] going to let us play then I'm going to go ahead and start to get physical, too.”
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Most of Johnson's opponents give an identical answer when they're asked if they want Johnson to break the record, trying to mix the universal respect Johnson has around the league with their desire to win.
“I wish him the best,” they chorus. “Just not against us.”
There's one person, however, who has made it clear he doesn't want Johnson to break the record -- Rice himself. The Hall of Famer told ESPN he respects Johnson, but that he wants to keep his record.
“The guy's unstoppable. He's a playmaker, and he knows how to run routes,” Rice said. “He can out-jump you; he's explosive downfield, so I'll be the first one to congratulate him. But no, I don't want him to break it.”
When told of Rice's comments Thursday, Johnson refused to rise to the bait and become part of the hype surrounding his chase of the record. Instead, showing his trademark humility, he chose to empathize with the man he admits deserves the title of the greatest receiver ever to play the game.
“Who would [want their record broken]?” Johnson asked. “If you've got NFL records, man, those are big. They're big deals.”
Follow Lions reporter John Kreger on Twitter at @CBSLions and @JohnKreger.