The Detroit Lions fell to 4-11 in a lost and disappointing season, but there's one thing this franchise can be proud of in 2012, and that's the performance of receiver Calvin Johnson. Despite the fact that every defense he faces focuses on him almost exclusively, the absence of any consistent target to take the heat off of him, and a quarterback in Matthew Stafford whose productivity and mechanics have been inconsistent, "Megatron" has performed as few receivers ever have. And with 2:57 left in the Lions' Saturday night loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he broke Jerry Rice's single-season record for receiving yardage with a 26-yard catch from Stafford.
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After the catch, Johnson handed the ball to his father, Calvin Sr., who was on the sideline.
"It's an accomplishment that took a lot of work," Johnson said after the game. "You're still in the moment – in the play that just happened, so I was still focused. I don't think I even said anything when I gave my dad the ball. I just gave him a hug. But when I think back on it, it's a special moment.
"We had tried that route earlier, but it got walled off by the MIKE [linebacker, Sean] Weatherspoon," Johnson said of the record-breaking catch. "We called the route again, and I just bounced it around – I was just like, 'See the ball, see the ball.' The guys were telling me that I was 4 or 5 yards away – everybody was keeping the record up."
The old record was set by Rice in 1995 with 1,848, and Johnson, who ended the game with 11 receptions for 225 yards, now has 1,892 for the season. He has a very good opportunity to become the first receiver to break 2,000 yards for a single season, a goal once thought unobtainable – even by the greatest receiver of all time.
"It's gonna go down," Rice told ESPN's Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden in the third quarter. "This guy is just really amazing. Watching him go out there and do his thing on the football field – he's a true talent, and that's why they call him Megatron. You never want your records to be broken, but if anyone's gonna do it, I would prefer Megatron to do it. I think this guy is trying to not only break my record, but he's trying to get to 2,000 yards. I tried and was not successful, but I think he's gonna do it.
"He can run every route – from the slant, to running by you with that 4.35 speed. He can out-jump out – just get up in the air, levitate and make those incredible catches. He has all the tools."
What Johnson doesn't have is the kind of talent around him that great players deserve. Stafford threw 37 completions in 56 attempts for 443 yards and no touchdowns. He was erratic all night, as he has been through most of the season. Still, Johnson was without peer throughout the game. He had over 100 yards receiving for the eighth straight game, breaking the old record, set by Charley Henningan in 1961 and tied by Michael Irvin in 1995. He set another league mark with the fourth game in a row in which he caught at least 10 passes, tied Irvin's mark of 11 100-yard games in a single season, and set an NFL mark for catches in a single month with 44.
Still, with all that, Johnson has only five touchdown catches this season after grabbing 16 in 2011. That's almost all about Detroit's red-zone ineptness, and has very little to do with Johnson – he can only catch what's thrown to him remotely accurately.
"I think it's hard to put in words ... and I think that the one thing about Calvin is it really hasn't been a story for him particularly," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said on Thursday. "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.
“And as a result of that, he's stayed on track. 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.
"[Lions running back] Mikel Leshoure was sort of thanking him a couple times today on the balls inside the one-yard line that he's had. But Calvin just sort of shakes it off. We had a play in practice and Calvin was probably out of about the half-yard line. He toe-tapped the sideline and Mikel said, ‘Hey I’ll take it from here.’ And Calvin just ... as long as we get the touchdown it doesn't bother him. I daresay 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. That's why we signed him to a long-term deal. Not just his talent on the field, but how good a guy he is.”
Next season, it would behoove the Lions to get more of those "good guys" to help their best guy out.
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