Pilot Challenge Magazine is a free monthly Truck Driving publication available at any Pilot/Flying J Truck Stop.http://ptcchallenge.com/
MEGATRON - CALVIN JOHNSON
by Ashley Leis
Prior to the kickoff of the 2011-2012 National Football League (NFL) season, former wide receiver Cris Carter went on ESPN Radio, analyzing the selection of receivers in the game. Carter, an NFL analyst, was an eight-time Pro Bowl receiver during his 15-year career.
During the interview, on "Mike & Mike in the Morning," Carter was very critical of Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, stating, "Calvin Johnson, he's very, very good at 'Madden' and 'Tecmo' Bowl or whatever they're playing now. But on film, when I watch film, and I break down the film, he's not to the point of these guys yet."
Carter went on to refute the suggestion that, given the opportunity to play with a skilled, seasoned quarterback (Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is in his third season), Johnson's reputation might be different. "I made eight Pro Bowls," Carter told ESPN host Mike Greenberg. "I made it with five different quarterbacks. They weren't always great. So I don't want to hear the excuse that 'I'm not playing with a great quarterback.'"
Carter ended his cutting analysis of Johnson claiming the Lions star is not impacting the game, as of "right now you don't have to double-team him to take him out of the game." Today, as the NFL heads toward the playoff series, Carter needs to make an appointment to have his foot removed from his mouth. His analysis could not have been further from the truth.
This season Johnson has proved to Carter, and any other critic of his game, that he is among the elite wide receivers playing today. His demand for additional defensive coverage started before this season. During last season's matchup against eventual Super Bowl champions the Green Bay Packers, Johnson's stats from the game may have indicated he had a dismal performance (just one 13-yard catch for a 44-yard gain). However, what isn't in the statistics report is the double-teaming on Johnson by Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who spent the entire game glued to Johnson's hip, and a number of Packers players sent to be Woodson's help.
The 13-year skilled veteran Woodson did contain the young Johnson, playing in his fourth season, that game. However, the double-team defensive move by the Packers, not the only one by a team during last season, is an indication that Johnson's talent was already recognized well before this season's blow-out performance.
Johnson's skills were recognized early in his career, as the Georgia Tech star is listed among the school's greatest. The two-time All American boasts a number of Georgia Tech records, including most touchdown receptions (28), most receiving yards (2,927) and most career 100-yard receiving games (13). He was recognized for his success with the 2006 Biletnikoff Award, a national honor for the most outstanding wide receiver in college football. Johnson was also recognized as the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2004 and the ACC Player of the Year in 2006.
When Johnson made himself available for the 2007 draft, forgoing his senior year at Georgia Tech, it was expected he would gain plenty of interest. Mid-season, he was ranked the No. 1 selection by many draft-analysis sites, such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, with the latter expecting Johnson to have similar rookie success as Randy Moss. On 2007 NFL draft day, Johnson was selected as the second pick overall, behind JaMarcus Russell, and was immediately welcomed by the Lions and the city of Detroit.
"Well, obviously with our first pick we took Calvin Johnson," said Matt Millen, president and CEO of the Detroit Lions, when he signed Johnson. "We are excited - it was an easy decision to make. [There was] very little conversation (regarding a trade) with other teams. I spoke ... with a few of them, but in the end, it was actually a very easy decision to make for us. Calvin Johnson, and what he brings to this football team, is obvious. If you're looking at the measurables, they're way off the charts. If you're looking at the intangibles, he has all of those as well. I think his character is outstanding; I think his work ethic is high. I told him when he was here that he wouldn't get past two. We talked about that when we chose him. We couldn't be more excited to get Calvin Johnson.
"Calvin Johnson is going to team with the rest of this offense and turn it into one of the most dynamic offenses in this league," Millen continued. "I firmly believe that. You can scoff at it if you like, I really don't care, because I think it's going to happen."
Johnson impressed early in his career after the hype of the draft and the title of the best player coming into the NFL. "There is a lot of expectation," Johnson explained at the time. "I carry high expectations for myself. Being called the best player, if I am the best player, I want to stay the best player, so I have to go out there and work even harder at my trade. I am ready to work hard and get things started here."
The struggles of the Lions in seasons past are no secret. They have not recorded a winning season in more than 10 years. From Dec. 23, 2007, after a win over the Kansas City Chiefs 25-20, to Sept. 27, 2009, the Lions remained winless, becoming the cellar dwellers on the NFL standings for several years. The Lions failed to record a win in 2008, and from 2000 to 2010 had 48 wins and 128 losses.
The 2011 season represents a remarkable turnaround for the Lions, who started the season winning their first five games. The last time the Lions boasted a 5-0 start was in 1956. During the '50s NFL era, the Lions won three NFL championship titles, including their last title, in 1957.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz recognized the significance of his team's impressive start, not only for the players but for the diehard Detroit fans as well. "It's important for our players to perform for our fans," said Schwartz. "I mean, they know the history of this franchise and they know how long it's been since they really had something to get behind and something to cheer about. I don't know if that makes a difference on (game day). It's important for us to play well, it's important for us to play for our city, but there's a lot of other things that go into it."
The 2011 NFL season has brought out the best in Johnson. In the first four games of the season, Johnson caught eight touchdown passes - two in each game. During the week-four game, against the Dallas Cowboys, the Lions faced a 27-3 deficit early in the second half. Spurred by three interceptions, the Lions came back to win the game 34-30. Johnson caught for two touchdowns in the game, including a memorable leap in the Lions' end zone amidst a three-man coverage. Johnson's record of two touchdowns in four straight games has been equaled by only one other player: Cris Carter.
Week five of the NFL season matched the Lions against their arch rivals, the Chicago Bears. It was the first Monday-night game for the Lions since 2001. Johnson continued his impressive performance, catching for his ninth touchdown of the season. Prior to the game, Johnson's impact and amazing form were already catching attention from rival teams and coaches.
"First off, I have seen him quite a bit; he's a great player," said Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith before his game against the Lions. "There's not a whole lot more I can say that hasn't been said about Calvin Johnson - special, athlete, playing that way, competitor - all those things. I mean, he's in our division, so we should know him well, which we do."
Johnson continued on his season's success, catching his 11th touchdown in the Lions' eighth game of the season, against the Denver Broncos. The Lions scored an impressive 45-10 win over the Broncos, and another record for Johnson topped off a great night for the wide receiver. Only Randy Moss, with whom Johnson had been compared in his earlier career, can claim the same touchdown success. The comparison humbled Johnson, who reportedly commented, "That's pretty cool. That's pretty good company."
Schwartz agreed that Johnson's accomplishment was remarkable, however, he understands more work is yet to be done. "There are not many times in NFL history that it's happened: 11 touchdowns before the half. Obviously he's on those kind of paces, but just like our team, 6-2 doesn't mean a lot if we don't do something with that over the second half of the season. I'm sure Calvin won't feel good about his first half of the season if he can't continue to have that kind of season or even play better over the second half of the year."
Aiding Johnson in his amazing season is his connection with Detroit Lions quarterback Stafford. Stafford is having a solid season, with his quarterback rating hovering around the 90 percent grade through the first half of the season. Even during multiple coverage, Stafford is looking for Johnson downfield, knowing that the 6-foot-5 wide receiver has a good leap on him that will challenge any defender. The pair are building a combination that, if continued, could grow to be one of the more successful in the modern game.
"Yeah, you know, that's just working together," said Stafford on his rapport with Johnson. "I mean, I've been doing it for a while now and Calvin kind of knows what I'm thinking and you know, I'm the same way with him.
The Lions' offensive success grew on the Stafford-Johnson connection as they looked to build momentum on their early season success. "We've put a lot of good work in when we met and you can see it on the field," explained Johnson. "It's paying off right now; we've just got to keep it up."
"I think that's something we can continue to build on week to week," said Stafford. "Each defense is different and they try to take certain things away in different ways," he added, in regard to finding Johnson.
"They try to take Calvin out of the game differently this week than they would last week. We've got to find ways to get [him] the ball. Obviously, he is a very skilled and talented player for our team."
On being considered one of the top quarterback-wide receiver connections in the NFL, Stafford said, "Absolutely, you want to be known as that. That's not something where I am going to force feed him the ball, but when he gets a good look and gets open, I will try to hit him every time."
"We have a lot of chemistry here," Johnson agreed. "We've got a lot of guys that have been here for more than one year and with that comes chemistry. I know there are other teams with that, but within, everybody's cool, everybody's getting along and that helps."
Johnson and Stafford have worked on their combination throughout the season to the point it has become an obstacle for defensive teams. However, both players have become aware of the additional attention they are receiving and made adjustments to their individual games to maintain their connection momentum. "He (Stafford) has to be smart and see what the situation is, and see what the coverage is," said Johnson. "He can't do that every time, but oftentimes I'd like to see it."
Stafford himself is a newer member of the Detroit Lions team. He built impressive numbers during his time as the Georgia Bulldogs quarterback, earning a starting position in 2006, the year after his high school graduation. Stafford elected to forgo his senior year at Georgia and enter the 2009 NFL draft. Stafford joined the Lions after their 0-15 season, after being selected as the first pick in the 2009 draft.
The Detroit Lions have obviously engineered a rebuilding program over the last few seasons, as the team boasts some of the youngest stars in the league. Offensively, Stafford, at just 23 years of age, leads several other young hopefuls, including 26-year-old Johnson, each weekend. Running back Jahvid Best, 22, posted great results before spending time on the mid-season injury list for the Lions.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, 24, free safety Louis Delma, 24, and linebacker DeAndre Levy, 24, have all shown that the Lions have a good combination of youth and experience that could maintain and build on this season's success over the next few seasons.
For the 2011 season, Detroit Lions fans have had plenty of reasons to celebrate - and the best may be yet to come. Johnson appreciates what the team has accomplished in reversing its fortunes of seasons past as well as the possibilities that are ahead of them. "Every year it gets better; the town is getting better and better and we really have a good football team right now."
As for Cris Carter and his pre-season comments, it took only two months into the season for him to reverse his position on Johnson. In an October 2011 interview on ESPN Radio, Carter made every attempt to back track on his initial analysis. "Right now, Calvin Johnson - there's a king in every crowd, and he's the king of the National Football League as far as wide receivers," he said.
What better motivation could there be for Johnson than to keep proving the critics wrong?