Calvin Johnson keeps abusing secondaries and stretching boundaries

by | National NFL Insider

What can Calvin Johnson do for an encore after an epic 2011 season? (US Presswire)  
What can Calvin Johnson do for an encore after an epic 2011 season? (US Presswire)  

BALTIMORE -- At one point, it just got ridiculous. No one could stop Calvin Johnson. The only thing missing was a laugh track.

He jumped high for one catch. Scooped up another that buzzed low to the ground. Deep catches, short ones, over the shoulder. Twisting ones, wide-open catches, catches in crowded spaces. The Ravens shifted corners and coverage, which was like when the bad guys emptied their clips shooting bullets at Superman then threw the gun at him. Nothing worked. And this was no scrub secondary. This was Baltimore's, a pretty good one.

Johnson was in the game for about a quarter, and when he departed, the Ravens defensive backs were sans jockstraps and pride. Johnson left a crater on the field: five catches, 111 yards, an 18-yard score and a 57-yard catch. In one quarter.

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"Listen now," Ray Lewis, a 12-year veteran, said of Johnson, "you are talking about a person who probably should be running track, but he chose football. He is a mismatch problem for a lot of people. The bottom line is you've got to play him and make him earn his check. Today, he earned his money."

Johnson was so good he earned his paycheck and a tax cut. His extreme performance had nothing to do with the fact it was preseason. This was a continuation of what Johnson has done the past few years for the Lions, including last season when he caught 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. He averaged a lethal 17.5 yards a catch.

It was the continuation of changing levels from a great receiver into something much bigger. What that is exactly, people are still trying to comprehend. Like Johnson himself, he cannot be easily labeled or deciphered. Some within the sport are saying Johnson is becoming the NFL's version of LeBron James or Tiger Woods -- though that seems a bit grandiose.

More likely is something almost as impressive. It can't be exactly quantified but we might be witnessing Johnson reconfiguring how the position is played, the kind of rewiring that happens generationally in the NFL, every decade or so.

Johnson is doing to the position what Don Hutson did to it in the 1930s, Raymond Berry in the 1950s, Paul Warfield into the 1970s, Jerry Rice in the 1980s and Randy Moss into the first decade of the 2000s. There are other top receivers now like Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson, but none of them, despite their great physical abilities, can match Johnson's all-around potential for rendering a secondary impotent.

"I'm biased but Paul Warfield is the greatest wide receiver in history," said former Miami runner Jim Kiick, a member of the 1972 Dolphins' perfect team. "I don't know how many players today could tough it out in our era, but Calvin Johnson is one of those players who could play in any era."

Whether 1972 or 2072. That is what generational changer liker Johnson does -- he sets the standard for a time period. Warfield, for example, is in the Hall of Fame and No. 60 on The Sporting News' top 100 football players of all time, because he was one of the first receivers to utilize both precision route running and explosive athletic ability. One season he caught only 29 passes, but 11 were for scores. Another season, he averaged 25.1 yards a catch.

Rice took both of those things to an unprecedented level perhaps never to be matched. Moss brought a form of explosion to the position unseen in NFL history -- until Johnson.

Moss had track speed and an almost cartoonish ability to outleap defenders. But Moss wasn't strong in his upper body or potentially heavy. Johnson is changing the position because he's as fast as almost any wide receiver in history, running a 4.35 40-yard dash at his combine workout while also packing nearly 240 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame. The only player who comes close to his uniqueness is former Philadelphia Eagles wideout Harold Carmichael, who was 6-8 but didn't possess a fraction of the speed.

I think we're already seeing Johnson drastically change how the position is played, but it's also fair to say we need more evidence. He scored 16 touchdowns last season, and as an ESPN statistical analysis stated, only four other wide receivers in the history of the sport have done that. Again, historic. Johnson's 1,681 receiving yards benchmark has been breached only five other times by NFL receivers.

This is the tricky part for Johnson. Of those four other receivers, none scored more than 10 touchdowns the following year, and none got to 1,600 yards. The true sign of being elite is being consistently so.

But so what if Johnson reaches 1,400 yards and 13 scores. That's not chump change and would still put him on an historic track, one I believe he's already on.

The Ravens got a taste of this on a quiet Friday night. They didn't seem to comprehend just what they were going up against, blitzing the Lions, and leaving corners one-on-one against Johnson. Stealing. Candy. Baby.

"We see that same coverage and our mouths start to water," Johnson told the Detroit News. "We get hungry. They blitzed a lot and left their corners on an island. That's what we live for."

We are going to see a lot of Johnson wrecking defenses because that's what once in a generation players do.


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