There is an abiding respect among the two, to the point where Johnson has a side mission for the Lions’ road game against the Cardinals on Sunday.
Johnson and Fitzgerald exchanged jerseys after the game when the Cardinals played the Lions at Ford Field in 2008. The Lions and Cardinals haven’t played since, and Johnson couldn’t get that jersey signed four years ago.
But it wasn’t because Fitzgerald wasn’t willing to sign.
“I couldn’t get it signed, because it was all sweaty,” Johnson said the other day.
In a matchup of elite players at their position, Johnson and Fitzgerald playing in the same game is similar to individual battles between Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith in the 1990s. Their performance was the highlight of the game.
Johnson and Fitzgerald share that kind of stature, even in a season when their teams are bottom-dwellers.
Any ranking of the NFL’s receivers begins with Johnson and Fitzgerald in the top tier. Add whoever you want to add to the group, but it starts with Megatron and Fitzgerald, whose greatness spread over nine seasons that he is easily identified by his first name “Larry.”
“Elite” is a term that gets thrown around far too often in sports these days, often being applied to any player who has a hot week or month – or simply declares himself elite at his position.
Johnson and Fitzgerald aren’t built for any sort of self-promotion. Neither has to be.
Their actions and accomplishments on the football field speak for themselves at a decibel level that drowns out the nuisance noise from the wannabes and self-promoters who want to holler and showboat their way into elite status.
It has been a tough season for both players, but nothing has diminished their status.
Johnson and Fitzgerald expected to be winners, based on last season.
While Johnson is in hot pursuit of Jerry Rice’s one-season record of 1,848 receiving yards, set in 1995, there is no saving grace for Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals started 4-0 this year – and haven’t won since, losing nine straight games.
From a personal standpoint, Fitzgerald has been the biggest victim in the losing streak because of horrid quarterbacking.
Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and rookie Ryan Lindley all have started games. The play of Skelton and Lindley has been almost comically bad. The Cardinals had a net of 167 passing yards the last two games combined.
Fitzgerald has only six catches in the last four games. With 57 catches for the season, he’s tied for 30th in the league’s receiving list.
It’s a different story for Johnson. He’s having a career year – another career year, in fact. He would rather be winning, but he can break Rice’s record with 303 receiving yards in the last three games.
Johnson can empathize with Fitzgerald. He was in a similar situation in 2008, his second year with the Lions. He had 78 catches for 1,331 yards and 12 TDs, but he played with five quarterbacks. No wonder the Lions were 0-16.
He has no trouble putting himself in Fitzgerald’s predicament.
“I sit back and think about it,” Johnson said. “When we didn’t have a starting quarterback, in a season when I caught TD passes with five quarterbacks – that’s crazy. He’s in a situation where they don’t have a steady quarterback situation.
“You don’t have a chance to get the ball.”
Fitzgerald is probably the most sure-handed receiver in the league, with exceptionally strong hands and great timing and ball awareness.
Johnson has developed one part of his game by studying Fitzgerald.
“One thing I like about Larry, he does an excellent job of high-pointing the ball.,” Johnson said. “That’s something that I take from him. I take it from him when I try to high-point the ball, just from watching him, whether it be in film or real life.”
The compliments don’t flow one way. Fitzgerald was effusive in his praise of Johnson when he spoke to reporters in Arizona on Thursday.
“He’s the best,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s so big, so physical. He’s got all the physical tools you can ask for, and mentally he’s honed in. He’s a good guy, a competitor. He’s got the whole package.
Fitzgerald doesn’t think Rice’s 1,848 yards for the one-season record is a stopping point for Johnson.
“I know he’s probably thinking he can get to 2,000. He’s got to have another monster game these last three games and put together a couple of good ones and he’s knocking at the door. He’s capable of it.”
Johnson is one of the receivers Fitzgerald studies every week. Wes Welker, Andre Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Roddy White and Brandon Marshall are part of his study group. All have different qualities.
“The thing about Calvin that makes him so special is that he sees so many exotic coverages every week,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s seen it, from the vices to the roll threes. He’s seen every single thing, especially in the red zone.”
Johnson and Fitzgerald have the same work ethic. Win or lose, they take nothing for granted in preparation.
The season has been a downer, but Johnson hasn’t let himself get down on his performance.
“Honestly, as a player, coming off the season we had last year, making it to the playoffs, having the same core group of guys, it’s tough to be in the situation we’re in,” he said. “So many of those games were lost on one play, two plays, here and there. Thats the way it is in the NFL.
“It’s frustrating to go down the stretch and know you’re not going to have a chance at the playoffs. The thing is, you’ve got to keep on playing. You’ve got to play for your teammates at that point.”
The record is a motivating factor, but only because there is no chance to make the playoffs.
“You can’t help but think about it,” Johnson said. “It’s talked about day-in, day-out, whether it’s by my coach, fans, the media. You’re going to hear about it. My mentality with it is, do I want it? Yeah, no question. No doubt about it. I work my butt off to get it.
“I’m not going to change my ways of operating. When I come out here, I’m not going to tell Matt to throw me the ball or anything like that. I’m going to go about my business as usual.”