Back in September, Nike launched an ad campaign for the one and only Calvin Johnson. It’s impossible to screw up a Calvin Johnson commercial. He’s either the LeBron of football or the Dominique of football (a.k.a. the Human Highlight Reel). He’s the second-best receiver I have ever seen. He’s on the short list of “Most Exciting Football Players Ever,” along with legends like Bo Jackson, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Randy Moss and fellow Lion-for-life Barry Sanders. And on top of everything else, he has a cool nickname: Megatron. I don’t know how you screw THAT up.
What happened? Nike screwed it up. It made a perfectly fine commercial that accentuates everything we already knew about Calvin Johnson: He’s humble and soft-spoken, someone who only cares about winning games and making plays. You can’t even see his expressions during Lions drives because his face is buried behind a protective eyeshield. And yet, Calvin Johnson has spent more time getting his name out there than you realize. He’s a recluse who doesn’t act like a recluse. This particular Nike commercial captures that inherent conflict.
There’s Calvin walking to work, dressed in a suit and moving through a fancy building. He’s telling himself that 1,964 (receiving) yards is waiting again, as long as he avoids annoying distractions like interviews, fans and demands. At that point, 50 reporters and photographers appear and start screaming, “Calvin! Calvin! Calvin! Calvin!” Calvin Johnson doesn’t enjoy this, nor does he enjoy the distractions, the hype or the entourages. “You’re on a leash,” he tells us. “You’re leashed.” Calvin just wants to worry about football — working on his game, getting faster, getting better. But, man, these stupid distractions! If only there were someone else to handle it for him.
At that point, Diddy (???) enters the commercial as Calvin’s alter ego, “Johnson.” He’s there to help.1 “I got this,” Johnson tells Calvin. “You focus.” Johnson will handle the obligations, the entourage, the hype. He’ll sign sneakers, answer questions, make jokes, you name it. “Put it on me,” he keeps telling Calvin. He’s freeing Calvin from all this crap. So a satisfied Calvin walks away from the crowd, nodding to himself, as Johnson’s voice trails him: “There’s only one thing you have to do.” And that’s when a big “UNLEASH SPEED” graphic comes flying at us.
The end. Everything about this commercial seems cool … you know, until you actually think about it. What’s the point of a sneaker ad? To make me like the endorser, to grab my attention, and to make me more likely to purchase the product. And not in that order. Well … why would I like Calvin Johnson MORE after that commercial? I already knew about his humility and work ethic. It’s one of his best traits, right up there with the real possibility that he’s an alien. Now I have to hear him complaining about distractions and outside forces?
Um … YOU JUST SPENT YOUR ENTIRE DAY FILMING A SHOE COMMERCIAL THAT COSTARRED A GUY WHO’S ON HIS FOURTH NICKNAME! That day wasn’t a distraction?
And why make a commercial that says, “I don’t have the personality, or the will, to pull off the ancillary parts of my life — I wish I could hire someone more dynamic, like Sean Diddy Combs, to do it.” What???? Who would want this?
The more I think about it, the more I hate that commercial. If you’re selling Calvin Johnson without emphasizing his most important quality, then you’ve failed. I would have tackled it differently. Maybe we see an eclectic mix of fans preparing to watch a Lions game on Sunday morning. Really, they’re getting ready to watch Calvin Johnson. They’re getting ready to do this either because they love the Lions, they wagered on the Lions, they picked him for their fantasy team, or because watching Calvin Johnson catch footballs has nothing in common with absolutely ANYTHING right now. I’d want to see those fans getting ready, then I’d want to see Calvin, and then I’d want to see him do Megatron shit. There’s your Calvin Johnson commercial.
Quick tangent: I hate this football season. My picks have flagrantly sucked, my fantasy teams are relentlessly mediocre, I can’t win a bet to save my life, the refs keep screwing over the Patriots, Aaron Hernandez possibly killed someone, Mike Lombardi can’t come on my podcast, Peyton Manning grabbed the upper hand on Brady again, we lost Wilfork and Mayo, the Giants rallied back from the dead … I mean … everything I like went to crap, and vice versa. Throw in bullying and staph infections and concussions and the n-word and it’s been a whopper of a season. Just bring me to the playoffs already.
So what’s been fun about 2013? Start here: We get to watch Calvin Johnson in his prime. The following anecdote makes me sound like Chuckie driving to Will Hunting’s house every morning, but I don’t care. Every Sunday, when I’m setting up the televisions in my office so I can watch four games at once, I always enjoy the one moment when Calvin Johnson gets officially assigned to one of the TVs.
That one’s yours, Calvin. Do your thing. I don’t want to miss anything.
I love watching that guy, and so do you, and that’s the greatest thing about him. If you were watching football with a group of friends, and one of them blurted out, “Enough with that Calvin Johnson, I hate that guy,” what would happen? Would people recoil in slow motion? Would everyone gang up and start screaming at him? Would everyone start laughing, like it was simply impossible for anyone to hate Calvin Johnson — which meant this joker had to be kidding? I’m not even sure someone has uttered the words “I hate Calvin Johnson” in Milwaukee, Chicago or Minneapolis, much less anywhere else. He might be the only current professional athlete with a 100 percent approval rating.
That’s particularly amazing in 2013, a media/sports/culture/politics/business/celebrity era in which nearly every successful person HAS to be polarizing. They can’t just be excellent at their jobs. There has to be a catch. There has to be a fatal flaw. There has to be a backlash. There has to be an angle that goes against everyone else’s already-accepted angle. There has to be SOME way to pick them apart, to throw a wet towel on them, to make everyone else feel worse about them. When Breaking Bad avoided that massive sinkhole and cranked out its treasured final season, one that pleased the hell out of just about everybody, it went down as a greater accomplishment than the show itself. Gaining universal respect and approval in 2013? Incredible. Who pulls that off anymore?
And you wonder why Kanye keeps flying off the handle. He’s not a lunatic, just someone driven to achieve that same universal respect. Kanye truly believes that he’s a musical genius, that he has a higher calling of sorts, that he’s repeatedly creating art that stands alone. Not everyone can see it. And he can’t believe it. He wants to be treated like Breaking Bad. He wants everyone to agree, “Holy shit, Kanye West is a genius!” and be done with it. When we don’t? That’s when he gets himself into trouble. I don’t think Kanye is crazy — not even close — but that unending frustration might drive him there. I imagine him reading something like the late Lou Reed’s review of Kanye’s latest album and yelling to an empty room, “SEE! SEE! THIS GUY GETS IT! WHY DOESN’T ANYONE ELSE GET IT?????” By bitching about his frustrations publicly, he just makes his situation worse.
Calvin Johnson plays it the other way. He complains by humbly pointing out in a Nike commercial, “Distractions are a little annoying; I wish I could just play football.” That’s actually how receivers used to carry themselves — when I was growing up, we knew little about guys like Cliff Branch, Stanley Morgan, Harold Carmichael, Wes Chandler and Drew Pearson. Maybe Billy “White Shoes” Johnson wiggled his legs after he scored, and maybe John Jefferson wore snazzy goggles that fetched him an awesome Sports Illustrated cover, but that’s as wonky as it got. Even the transcendent Jerry Rice maintained a low-key persona, at least until Michael Irvin ushered in the Receiva Diva era and guys started ripping off 100-catch seasons, creating touchdown dances, making ridiculous statements and screaming at their quarterbacks. We’re accustomed to elite receivers “performing” now — it’s part of that position, for better and worse.
You would never call Calvin Johnson a “performer,” but again, you can’t call him a recluse. Google him and you’ll stumble across a surprising number of commercials, TV appearances, NFL Films “Wired for Sound” clips and mildly awkward behind-the-scenes-at-the-shoot videos. I watched a crapload of them this week trying to understand him better. Didn’t work. Calvin Johnson seems like a really nice guy. That’s it.
He seemed nice when he was coming out of college. Actually, everyone went out of their way to discuss how nice Calvin Johnson was. Georgia Tech teammate Joe Anoai even gushed: “To be as gifted as he is, to be as physically dominant as he is — he’s like a masterpiece of what God can build. And what he does on the field doesn’t even compare to the type of person he is.”
• He seemed nice when he allowed Lindsay Czarniak to keep throwing eggs at him.
• He seemed nice when he showed off his gigantic hands.
• He seemed nice in this “Wired for Sound” clip at the 5:25 mark, as he patiently listened to his starting center’s confusing story and pretended to care.
• He seemed nice when he caught and held 16 balls against his body on SportsNation.
• He seemed nice (and even a little honored) after Ryan Riess won the 2013 World Series of Poker while wearing Calvin’s home jersey.
• He seemed nice when he refused to brag last December about breaking Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in one season.
• He seemed nice when he was belting a home run at Comerica Park and reminding everyone that, oh yeah, Calvin Johnson can do anything.
Even his “controversial” moments never seemed even remotely controversial because he’s so damned nice. When he signed that whopping $132 million contract extension, Johnson vowed to take care of family, say no to everyone else. Everyone appreciated his resolve. When he announced his belief in abstinence, nobody turned him into an A.C. Green–like punching bag. When he posed for the Madden NFL 13 cover, we kept our “He’s gonna get screwed by the Madden Curse!” jokes to a minimum. When his awesome nickname spiraled into a transformer robot and snazzy sneakers this week, nobody accused him of bastardizing his own brand. We just like him. He gets a free pass for just about everything.
In fantasy football, Calvin Johnson always goes four picks too late or $12 too cheap, and by Week 3, you’re always kicking yourself that it wasn’t you. In Madden, every gamer has grabbed Detroit’s car keys and taken the Lions for a whirl, if only because we want to know what it’s like to say the words, “I’m trailing, I can’t get any momentum going … I think I’ll just throw deep into a triple-team for Calvin Johnson.” Every gambler and fan of a Lions opponent is abjectly terrified of him — there’s nothing more agonizing than picking against Detroit, then sweating out every “Here’s Stafford buying time, now he’s going deep … !” moment. I can’t remember the last time I wagered against the Lions. I just don’t enjoy it. I mean, what’s fun about wagering against Calvin Johnson?
But it’s the in-the-moment stuff that makes him special. I’m 40 NFL seasons in at this point. During that time, only five non-quarterbacks made me feel like their games never had a ceiling: Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Adrian Peterson (2012 only) and Megatron. I came up with that list during last Sunday’s Pittsburgh game, at halftime, when it seemed entirely possible that Calvin Johnson might finish with 400 receiving yards in one game. FOUR HUNDRED RECEIVING YARDS?????? This was possible?
That led to this moment: Wait a second … what the hell am I watching right now? Is this the greatest receiver who’s ever lived and I’m the last person who realizes it?
Unlike with 2,000 rushing yards, 60 homers or 50 touchdown passes, we don’t have the proper benchmarks for receiving seasons to put them in perspective. Only seven receivers finished an NFL season with more than 1,600 receiving yards, 100 catches and 10 touchdowns while also averaging 100+ yards per game and 13+ yards per catch. Sadly, the 1600-100-10-100-13 Club isn’t the catchiest name. Even though Megatron missed a game (he’s played nine of ten), he’s still on pace to potentially become our eighth 1600-100-10-100-13 Club member.
Jerry Rice (1995): 1,848 yards, 15 TDs, 115.5 YPG, 122 catches, 15.2 YPC
Megatron (2013): 1,805 yards, 18 TDs, 120.3 YPG, 98 catches, 18.4 YPC
Isaac Bruce (1995): 1,781 yards, 13 TDs, 111.3 YPG, 119 catches, 15.0 YPC
Torry Holt (2003): 1,696 yards, 12 TDs, 106.0 YPG, 117 catches, 14.5 YPC
Herman Moore (1995): 1,686 yards, 14 TDs, 105.4 YPG, 123 catches, 13.7 YPC
Marvin Harrison (1999): 1,663 yards, 12 TDs, 103.9 YPG, 115 catches, 14.5 YPC
Randy Moss (2003): 1,632 yards, 17 TDs, 102.0 YPG, 111 catches, 14.7 YPC
Michael Irvin (1995): 1,603 yards, 10 TDs, 100.2 YPG, 111 catches, 14.4 YPC
You know what’s fascinating? Nobody cracked that list more than once. Not even Jerry Rice. You need to stay healthy, you need to keep cranking out those 100-yard games, you need luck around the end zone. Johnson missed out last season because, to the eternal chagrin of more than 3 million fantasy owners (including me), he got tackled on the 1-yard line 83 different times and interfered with on a potential score 54 times (all numbers approximate). This season, he has already doubled his TD total. It’s just hard. Getting a 1600-100-10-100-13 isn’t a slam dunk even when you’re superhuman.
All right, so let’s simplify it a little. You want 100 yards and a touchdown from your best receiver every game, right? Those are the benchmarks that ultimately matter. Only 27 receivers in NFL/AFL history have averaged 100 yards per game. It has happened only 34 times in all, and only Lance Alworth has done it three times (Johnson is 417 yards and four touchdowns away from becoming the second to do so). How many receivers averaged 100-plus yards and one-plus touchdowns for an entire season while playing at least 90 percent of the schedule? That’s a slightly different list.2
Calvin Johnson (2013): 15 games, 18 TDs, 120.3 YPG (prorated)
Jerry Rice (1995): 16 games, 17 TDs, 115.5 YPG
Randy Moss (2003): 16 games, 17 TDs, 102.0 YPG
Elroy Hirsch (1951): 12 games, 17 TDs, 124.6 YPG
Don Hutson (1942): 11 games, 17 TDs, 110.1 YPG
Calvin Johnson (2011): 16 games, 16 TDs, 105.1 YPG
Lance Alworth (1965): 14 games, 14 TDs, 114.4 YPG
Lance Alworth (1966): 13 games, 13 TDs, 106.4 YPG
Billy Howton (1952): 12 games, 13 TDs, 102.6 YPG
How many players averaged more than 120 receiving yards per game? Four. Only one did it in a 16-game season. Take a guess.
Wes Chandler (1982, 8 games): 129.0 YPG
Charley Hennigan (1961, 14 games): 124.7 YPG
Elroy Hirsch (1951, 12 games): 124.6 YPG
Megatron (2012, 16 games): 122.8 YPG
Megatron (2013, 9 games): 120.3 YPG
Of course, single-season numbers admittedly get fluky. What about THREE years? Wouldn’t that indicate something a little more substantial? My only qualifications here: I needed at least 4,000 yards and at least 40 touchdowns, and I needed a result that said definitively, “Oh yeah, Jerry Rice was the best ever” because that’s indisputable (at least in 2013). So with that in mind, here are the greatest three-year receiving stretches in football history. I’m including Megatron’s prorated 2013 stats again.
Megatron (2011-13, 47 games): 5,449 yards, 40 TDs, 115.3 YPG, 331 catches, 17.1 YPC
Jerry Rice (1993-95, 48 games): 4,850 yards, 43 TDs, 101.0 YPG, 332 catches, 14.6 YPC
Lance Alworth (1964-66, 39 games): 4,220 yards, 40 TDs, 108.2 YPG, 203 catches, 20.8 YPC
Marvin Harrison (2000-02, 48 games): 4,659 yards, 40 TDs, 97.1 YPG, 354 catches, 13.2 YPC
Terrell Owens (2000-02, 44 games): 4,163 yards, 42 TDs, 94.6 YPG, 290 catches, 14.4 YPC
Randy Moss (1998-2000, 48 games): 4,163 yards, 43 TDs, 86.7 YPG, 226 catches, 18.4 YPC
Now, this isn’t ALL Calvin Johnson. He’s playing in the perfect era for elite receivers — you can’t crush them over the middle, you can’t manhandle them after five yards, you can’t touch their heads, you can’t accidentally bump them when they’re running, you can’t accidentally breathe on them, you can’t do anything. Jerry Rice must watch these 2013 games and think, Man, I could have averaged 2,000 yards and 20 TDs a season with these rules. And he wouldn’t necessarily be exaggerating. With NFL defenders struggling to adjust to belated safety concerns and so many rules working against them, the passing/receiving numbers from Johnson’s era could mirror baseball’s power surge from the Bonds/McGwire/Sosa era. We might pass an invisible point where it becomes impossible to compare receiving eras against each other.
At the same time, I can’t remember any receiver other than Calvin Johnson pulling down more bombs while wearing three guys. I can’t remember defensive backs bouncing off another receiver like it’s a Pop Warner game. I can’t remember a receiver swinging a line by more than a touchdown just by missing a game — which is exactly what happened with Johnson in Week 5 (against Green Bay). I can’t remember watching another offense near the goal line and feeling like they were morons every time they didn’t call the “unstoppable one-yard corner lob to our freak-of-nature receiver” play. And other than Randy Moss, I can’t remember being more excited about a receiver during that split second when his quarterback is heaving a football downfield, and the light bulb flickers on, and you say to yourself, “Wait, he’s going deep!”
I also can’t remember feeling more wishy-washy about a quarterback than I do about Matthew Stafford right now. Is Matthew Stafford good? Is he really good? Is he potentially great? Is he wildly overrated? Did he win the quarterback lottery? Should he get credit for Johnson’s numbers taking off as soon as Stafford started to look competent? Or how much of Stafford’s success can be directly attributed to the part where, you know, HE GETS TO THROW FOOTBALLS TO A FREAK OF NATURE? What would Stafford’s numbers look like if we removed the 20 catches every season that no other human could make?
You have to understand — I’m a Rice guy. Watched his whole career, gambled on him, drafted him in fantasy back in the days when commissioners mailed out weekly fantasy stats at the post office, the whole thing. I think I’ve written this story before, but we went on a family vacation in the late-1980s and brought my buddy Geoff with us. Geoff and I were watching a Niners playoff game in some Caribbean bar one Sunday, throwing back tropical drinks and pretending to be 21. One rowdy drunk who wagered heavily on the Niners kept screaming for Jerry Rice to come through. He wasn’t angry at Rice; it was more that he was beckoning him, imploring him, as if Rice were a spirit who could be summoned on command. Every time Montana went back to pass, the guy would scream, “JERRY RICE!” and then celebrate after every Rice catch.
And he kept doing it. And he kept doing it. We thought it was annoying at first, then funny, then legitimately funny. This guy just wouldn’t be denied. We wanted Rice to score just for his reaction. One time, Montana dropped back to pass (“Jerry Rice!”), found an open Rice streaking down the field (“JERRY RICE!!!”), and suddenly Rice was scampering toward the end zone (“JER-RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRY RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICE!!!!!!”) as our crazy friend danced around the bar with his arms raised. You can probably trace my gambling problem directly to those seven seconds. That’s also the day Rice reached holy ground for me. Eventually, everyone else on the planet would agree with Screaming Drunk Caribbean Degenerate Gambler: The answer to any question involving the words “best” and “receiver” was Jerry Rice.
Nearly 25 years later, for the first time, I’m not so sure.3 In four decades of watching football, three receivers stand out for me over everyone else: Rice, Megatron and Moss. I’d take Rice for any important game, Moss for any deep ball, and Megatron for any “sitting at home on a lazy October afternoon expecting to see someone kick ass for three hours” situation. I will remember watching all three. Even if it’s too early to wonder if Megatron can leapfrog those other two, he has launched the conversation.
That should be the most fascinating subplot of the Calvin Johnson era, but it’s actually this one: I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like this again. And by “this,” I mean “a 6-foot-5 freak receiver wreaking havoc on a football field every week.”
Think about what we know in 2013 that we didn’t know 10 years ago. If you were a ridiculously talented, perfect specimen of an athlete who could make millions playing any sport, why pick football? Why assume the risks? Why worry about concussions, wear and tear and collateral damage? Why not gravitate toward basketball, baseball or soccer and be done with it?
Maybe Nike should dump that Diddy commercial, press the RESET button and make a new one called “Calvin Johnson, the Last of the Freak Receivers.” Show him doing Megatron things for 58 seconds, then close with the tagline “YOU WILL NEVER SEE THIS AGAIN.” Because it might be true.