When a receiver puts together a stat line of 96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 17.5 yards per reception, all you can do is stand up and applaud his effort. That player has reached truly rarefied air and earned whatever accolades and rewards they've received.
And that was only Calvin Johnson's 2011 season.
Johnson ascended to a level all his own in 2012. He led the league in receptions (122) and receiving yards (1,964), the latter of which is now the NFL's all time single-single record for a receiver. Like many accomplishments last year, it was overshadowed by Adrian Peterson's injury and logic defying MVP campaign. However, Johnson's feat should be granted similar acclaim. His 1,964 yards in 2012 eclipsed the next most prolific one year performance (the great Jerry Rice's 1995 season) by over 100 yards.
The most common criticism of Johnson's record breaking performance is how it reflected the Lions' lack of success in 2012. Despite being a playoff team a year prior, Detroit fell to 4-12. Much of Johnson's production, critics argued, was the result of a team constantly playing catch up, and as such didn't stack up to Peterson's performance on a winning Vikings squad. There's some truth to this; the Lions certainly threw the ball more often because they were behind. In fact, the Lions led the NFL in pass attempts for the second consecutive year.
However, to blame Johnson for his team's shortcomings is to fail to understand why the Lions struggled in 2012. Detroit's defense gave up the 6th most points last year. Its offense, though prolific in the passing game, was left one-dimensional due to their inability to run the ball with consistency (10th fewest yards on the ground in the league, worst in the division). It's fair to say the Lions' pass attempts were inflated due to these factors, but what else could they do? When the only part of your team that works is Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson, it shouldn't be held against the receiver.
It's also important to remember that Johnson didn't have another quality receiver to keep opposing defenses honest. Of Detroit's top five pass catchers in 2012, only one player besides Johnson was a wide receiver. Two were tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, but neither stretches the field old requires a double team. Had Titus Young or Nate Burleson been more productive, Johnson wouldn't have to fight through double and triple coverages. Yet, even with the defenses knowing where the ball was going on a regular basis, Johnson managed a record-setting season.
The Lions' didn't make many changes to their receiving corps this offseason. The most significant change is the release of Titus Young, a former second round selection whose personal life has spiraled downwards since entering the league. To replace him, GM Martin Mayhew signed free agents Terrence Austin and Michael Spurlock, but both are primarily returners and neither is a lock to make the final roster. Detroit traded for Jaguars' receiver Mike Thomas halfway through 2012, and with an offseason to integrate into the offense he could contribute more this year. Ryan Broyles, a second round pick a year ago, is recovering from his second ACL tear since 2011. Other options include Nate Burleson, a weathered veteran near the end of his career and rookie Corey Fuller, an interesting height-speed combination who lacks polished receiving skills. That's a long-winded way of saying there won't be much additional receiver support for Johnson in 2013.
Detroit's defense may not fare much better either. Cliff Avril, the Lions' leader in sacks three of the last four years, departed for Seattle. The team drafted Ziggy Ansah to replace him, but the BYU product is extremely raw and probably needs a few years of seasoning before he can fill Avril's shoes. Starting safety Amari Spievey has been hit with head injuries and legal issues, and Louis Delmas has missed 13 games the past two seasons. The team signed Glover Quin and Chris Hope and drafted Darius Slay to mitigate damage, but Hope is a mere journeyman and rookie defensive backs usually struggle out of the gate. Quin is likely the one newcomer who will make a big splash in the secondary. Unless Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley do indeed become the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFL, Detroit will be bleeding points again in 2013.
Detroit's running game should show some improvement over last year, but it's unlikely to make a significant difference. The team signed Reggie Bush to take over the starting role. While Bush is coming off his best two rushing seasons, he's never been a workhorse back and is more of a glorified third down back. Mikel Leshoure gave a taste of the powerful running style that made him a force at the University of Illinois, but he wore down near the end of the season. If the Lions can find a way to work both backs in tandem, defenses would be less inclined to play the deep pass. That could free up Johnson, but he would still be the top defensive priority on every play.
The end result is that the Lions' offense will look pretty similar to past years. That means a lot of passes thrown Johnson's way, and a lot of catches and yards for the All-Pro receiver. It would be naïve to expect another 1,900+ season, but with that supporting cast and Megatron's track record, it can probably be fairly close. Expect Johnson to haul in 100 or more catches for between 1,700 and 1,750 yards if he stays healthy. That might mean the Lions are in the NFC North cellar again, but that won't be Johnson's fault.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn
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