MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Projecting Calvin Johnson's legacy

Posted Jan 11, 2016

This week's Monday Countdown is a review of Calvin Johnson's career with a projection of his legacy.

It is way earlier than anyone wants to begin thinking about Calvin Johnson’s legacy, and where he stands on the list of all-time greats – both in the Lions’ history and all of the NFL.

Megatron’s nine years with the Lions made us want to see nine more – at least. But that’s fantasy, wishful thinking.

The reality is that he may be set to retire at the age of 30. He may have taken too many hard hits, played over too many injuries and taken too long to heal in the offseason for it to be worthwhile in his mind to continue playing.

That makes it time – unfortunately – to make this week’s Monday Countdown a review of his career and to project his legacy. That includes how his peers regarded him late in his career, where I put him on the list of all-time Lions greats, and the ultimate honor for a player -- the odds of being a first-ballot selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame based on a sampling of voters.

We start with the Hall of Fame nickname:

1. All-time nickname: Roy Williams, a former Lions receiver and teammate of Johnson’s until being traded during the 2008 season, dubbed Johnson “Megatron” after a Transformers character when he arrived in Detroit as a rookie in 2007 because of his rare blend of size and athleticism.

One of the all-time great nicknames stuck with fans and media.

For his nickname alone, “Megatron” is worthy of the Hall of Fame.

2. First ballot: Under the five-year retirement rule, Johnson will be eligible after the 2020 season, in voting for the Class of 2021. For impact and ability, he’s a slam dunk to make it – eventually. But first-ballot selection is another issue, and a lot of it has to do with timing and position for any player, especially wide receivers with how stats have exploded in a passing era.

A sampling of a little more than a half-dozen of the 46 selectors indicates that Johnson is worthy of the Hall of  Fame, but it will be borderline to make it on the first ballot because of a relatively short career.

Responses ranged from a one word “no” to this answer from MMQB columnist and NBC contributor Peter King:

“I don’t think it’s a certainty. Just my gut feeling, who’s he up against on the ballot? If it were this year, and he were in the pool, my gut feeling is Marvin Harrison – deservedly or not – would have stronger sentiment.

“But he absolutely is a Hall of Famer – one of the best big/fast downfield threats in NFL history.”

Other Hall selector comments:

Chicago columnist Dan Pompei:  “If you put a gun to my head, I guess I’d say he’s borderline first ballot because one thing would be missing from his career – longevity.

“If he’s not first ballot, I can’t see him waiting long.”

Jim Trotter of ESPN: “So much depends on who else is up for selection. If Calvin retires now, he could be competing with Charles Woodson and, possibly, Peyton Manning as first-year guys, not to mention holdover candidates.”

Jarrett Bell of USA Today: “Sure he’ll be a Hall of Famer. First ballot? Probably. But that can be a tough call because it’s difficult to project who else would be on the ballot. A lot of people probably thought Marvin Harrison would have been a ‘first-ballot’ pick, and he’s not in yet.”

3. Receiver stats, precedent for delay: Cris Carter retired after the 2002 season as No. 2 on the career list with 1,101 catches. It took him five years to get his yellow jacket and a ticket to Canton. Tim Brown, now fifth with 1,094 catches, got in on the sixth try. Marvin Harrison, second when he retired in 2008 with 1,102 catches, is a finalist for the Hall again after not being voted in the last two years.

Being at the top of the stats lists does not guarantee instant induction.

4. Johnson’s career stats: He ranks 43 with 731 catches, 27th with 11,619 yards and 22nd with 83 touchdown catches. On the surface, they do not measure up to others of his era, when 1,000 career catches and 100 TDs are the receivers’ standard for Hall of Fame election.

5. Johnson records – sudden impact: If the length of service and volume of catches don’t warrant first-ballot induction, impact does. Consider the following receiving records and standards:

Yards in a season: No. 1 with 1,964, set in 2012.

Yards in a game: No. 1 in regulation time with 329 against Dallas in 2013. Flipper Anderson of the Rams is No. 1 overall with 336 against the Saints in 1989, but he needed overtime to gain enough yards to hold the record.

Average per game: No. 1 for receivers who have played at least 100 games 86.1. Only Atlanta’s Julio Jones ranks higher with an average of 95.4 yards for 65 games.

League leader: Twice No. 1 in receiving yards – 1,681 in 2011 and 1,964 in 2012; No. 1 in receiving TDs with 12 in 2008; No. 1 in catches with 122 in 2012.

6. Detroit Lions Mount Rushmore: A column in this space in 2014 picked the four greatest Lions in franchise history. The four: middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, quarterback Bobby Layne, running back Barry Sanders, and Calvin Johnson.

There was some fan opposition to including Johnson because he had played only seven seasons at the time.

In my mind, he fit then, and he fits even better now.

7. Peer respect: The last two seasons were not Johnson’s best statistically, but that did not change how he was regarded by players and coaches who had to devise ways to stop him.

The 2014 season was one of his least productive statistically because of an ankle injury that caused him to miss three games and play at about half strength for half the season.

But for the 2015 season, the players voted him sixth overall and the No. 1 receiver in the NFL Network’s list of the top 100 players.

Similarly he did not make the top 10 among receivers in fan voting for the 2015 season Pro Bowl. But he got enough votes from players and coaches to get elected.

That’s respect from one’s peers.

8. Hall rules: A maximum of five so-called “modern-era” candidates, which obviously would include Johnson, can be voted in every year.

One factor that complicates the process is that offensive linemen get voted in.  They are the only players who have no stats. It’s a lot easier to make a case for or against a receiver, running back, receiver or defensive player with stats than it is for an offensive lineman based on Pro Bowls, for example.

9. If I had a vote: From the experience of being a Hall of Fame selector, I can vouch that the process is not infallible, but it’s fair. Every player is subjected to a lengthy discussion in voting done the day before the Super Bowl.

Eventually, the players whose careers truly warrant being in the Hall of Fame will get in, whether it’s first ballot, second or later.

I’d vote for Calvin Johnson because his impact over nine years is greater than the volume of his stats – much like Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers, who was limited by injuries to 68 games over seven years.

10. Bottom line: Playing 135 games over nine seasons is a big enough sample size to determine who ranks with the all-time greats. Calvin Johnson doesn’t have to play another game to prove that he belongs in Canton.

First ballot or not, he’ll wind up in Canton.