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Calvin Johnson left the NFL long before it was his time to leave.
That started the countdown to the Hall of Fame. We have nine practically pristine seasons from Johnson. He didn't fall off in his 30s. There's no memories of him hanging around late in his career with random teams. It's just the greatness he showed with the Detroit Lions. There was absolutely no question about his Hall of Fame credentials. Johnson will be formally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.
But the early retirement also changed his legacy. He didn't have the early-retirement cache of Gale Sayers, Jim Brown or Barry Sanders, especially playing a position in which his numbers won't look so dominant as passing stats keep going up.
Johnson's sudden retirement was complicated. He became a clear Hall of Famer when he retired. But how will he be remembered when it comes to ranking the all-time greats?
Calvin Johnson stepped away suddenly
Johnson didn't leave the game with much fanfare. There was no teary news conference. He just released a statement and was gone at age 30. The similarities to Sanders' retirement from the Lions were obvious. Being fed up with the Lions' losing played a part.
“Let me assure you that this was not an easy or hasty decision," Johnson said in that statement from March of 2016. "As I stated, I, along with those closest to me, have put a lot of time, deliberation and prayer into this decision and I truly am at peace with it."
If you made a list of the greatest receivers ever, Jerry Rice and Randy Moss would be on every credible top-five list. Don Hutson would make the list for anyone who studies pre-Super Bowl history. Terrell Owens would make a lot of those all-time receiver lists. After that it gets hazy.
Johnson has a clear argument as a top-five all-time receiver. His 1,964-yard season in 2012 is still a record, even with seemingly every starting receiver now going over 1,000 yards in the wide-open NFL. He was a unique blend of size and speed, and worked to turn himself into a great receiver in all ways. He was a prototype. If you're building the perfect receiver in "Madden," you could do worse than to just copy all of Johnson's attributes.
But it feels like he might get lost in history.
Johnson has an unusual legacy
Johnson's Lions made the playoffs twice. They went 0-2. Johnson had 211 yards in one of those losses, but we build legacies based on deep playoff runs, fair or not. We also tend to remember outlandish personalities. Two of the reasons Owens has endured (aside from his own greatness on the field) is he was controversial and he played in a Super Bowl not long after breaking his leg. Johnson has a reserved personality and played for a bad team. It's not like the Lions were often on prime time. Johnson said recently he'd have played for any other team, but the Lions wouldn't grant his wish to leave.
“We asked would they release me or let me go to another team,” Johnson told Woodward Sports earlier this year. “They wouldn’t.”
Johnson's relationship with the Lions has never been repaired. Johnson has continued to be upset that the Lions took back a portion of his signing bonus when he retired.
Maybe a few years with the New England Patriots or any other contender would have changed how we view Johnson. Perhaps playing with other teams wouldn't have been a good thing. We just don't know.
Here's what we're left with: Nine great years. Endless highlights in which the 6-foot-5, 237-pound Johnson (who somehow ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine) simply imposed his will on defensive backs. Six Pro Bowls. Three All-Pro teams. A spot on the 2010s All-Decade team. And a sense there was more to come, but Johnson decided at age 30 he'd had enough.
Johnson's records will be surpassed, especially with the 17-game season upon us. He doesn't have any easy playoff memories that will get played back on NFL Films through time. Johnson seems destined to be forgotten a little bit as other receivers come along and put up numbers that make his look common.
But those who watched and followed his career understand. There was only one "Megatron."
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