He is one of the most beloved Lions in the history of the franchise, providing fans with a spark when times were at their darkest. When everything that could go wrong did, Calvin Johnson was the saving grace. The face of the franchise, Megatron gave us someone to cheer for. He gave us something to smile about. He was the one thing we could hang our hats on and be proud of. But nothing lasts forever, and all good things must come to an end.
Calvin Johnson announced his retirement shortly before training camp started in the summer of 2016. There had been reports and rumors that he was going to hang up the spikes in the months prior so some fans had the chance to brace themselves for the inevitable. It was hard to blame him. He was so great for so long, and if he was walking away on his own terms then so be it. He cited his long term health as the reason. Understandable. It was the end of an era in Detroit. It hurt. Nobody was happy, but we understood so we wished him the best and said goodbye.
What happened next was magical in a way. A 7-9 team that had just lost their best player wasn’t exactly getting a ton of respect in the media, and why would they? How could they get any better after this? Matthew Stafford was slated to bust and confirm the suspicions that he had only been getting by with the aide of Johnson. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Addition by subtraction I suppose. The Lions went on to finish 9-7 and made the playoffs for the second time in three years, but that’s not the magical part. This was a team from the movies. Eight times they came back to win games after trailing in the 4th quarter. Matthew Stafford, with ice in his veins, broke the record for comeback wins by a QB in a single season. Never say die; they epitomized the phrase, ‘it’s not over til it’s over’, and reminded us of it week in and week out. Suddenly, Megatron’s absence didn’t seem so bad. In 9 we trust.
This off-season there were reports that the Lions recouped a portion of Johnson’s bonus money. The money is paid up front, contingent on the expectation that the player will, you know, play. The fan base was split. Some believed Calvin owed the money and had no reason to complain. The NFL is a business after all. Others believed the franchise was being petty asking for such a small amount of money (estimated at roughly $1M) back from a player with the prestige and respect that Johnson had in the Lions community. He had done so much that surely they could let this slide. Personally, I didn’t think the story was a big deal. Maybe it was petty, but they’re entitled to ask for it back. I can see both sides. That’s where my neutrality ended.
Recently, there was an interview with Johnson where he offered new insight to add to his retirement. ” I didn’t see the chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall.” Keep in mind that the same team he couldn’t see in the Super Bowl returned to the playoffs immediately (without him). It’s not the same as going to the Super Bowl, but it’s a better situation than 20 other NFL teams are in. There are plenty of fans in Johnson’s corner again. Blaming the organization for failing to get him a formidable team to find success with is understandable, even if all signs are pointing up for the team right now. But, when did this become a reasonable excuse to call it quits?
I don’t buy it, and there are logical reasons why you shouldn’t either. Take a look at the salary cap. Johnson’s cap hit was set to be $24M. That’s $8M more than the next highest paid WR. The Lions would have been in cap hell trying to pay that salary. New Lions GM, Bob Quinn, likely asked him to take a pay cut. If he refused the reduced salary there’s a high likelihood that he would have been released. Once released, he’s free to go anywhere he chooses. There’s nothing stopping him from going to a contender in that situation. Instead, he chose retirement.
There is also the case of the conflicting reports as to when the decision to retire was actually made. Many people close to Johnson, including teammates Matthew Stafford and Stephen Tulloch, said they were told at the beginning of the 2015 season that it would be his last. At that point in time the Lions were fresh off a gut wrenching playoff loss that was mired in controversy. There would be no reason for him to have the “never going to win” thoughts at that point. It just doesn’t add up. It appears to be a disgruntled ex player who’s bitter about the money the team took back. Why not take a shot at his former club in the media, and why do we even care?
Lions fans have been through enough. Barry Sanders retired abruptly to shock the world as well. The 0-16 season Detroit posted in 2008 still stands as the only of its kind. The Lions have suffered losses in some of the most controversial officiating blunders in NFL history. We’re tired of it. The last thing we want as fans is to see a headline that reads “Detroit’s Futility Drives Away Another Legend”. Calvin knows this. He knows what we’ve been through. He was there with us for much of it. His comments are a slap in the face to those of us who have suffered through the worst of the worst and stuck around. Retiring was his choice, and he’s entitled to do what he thinks is best. I’ll never hold that against him. Throwing the team (and us fans) under the bus over a personal vendetta is different. You were one of us, Calvin. Don’t forget that.
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