O'Hara: Calvin Johnson's greatness spans beyond polls, stats and player rankings

Posted Jun 27, 2013

In light of Calvin Johnson ranking third in the NFL Network's Top 100, detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara takes a look at the seventh-year vet's value

Calvin Johnson's value is not defined by poll results or player rankings, or even by the eye-popping stats and record-setting performance of last season.

The complete package – freakish physical stature and skill level, toughness, consistent top-of-the-chart production and commitment to team concepts – gives Johnson his stand-alone athletic preeminence.

And yes, so do the stats compiled by the Lions' All-Pro receiver as he prepares to enter his seventh pro season.

For those who follow polls, Johnson has been ranked No. 3 for the second straight year in the NFL Network's poll of the top 100 players at all positions.

The 2013 poll, announced Thursday night, had Vikings running back Adrian Peterson No. 1 and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning No. 2. In the 2012 poll, Johnson finished behind two quarterbacks – Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Drew Brees of the Saints.

Polls are fun to follow and stir great debate, but there is no argument here over whether the players who voted in the NFL Network poll got it right or wrong in twice voting Johnson No. 3.

Johnson passes the eye test in determining greatness. You know it when you see it, and Johnson has given the sports world an eyeful from the moment he came to the Lions as a rookie drafted second overall in 2007.

Running back Reggie Bush, Johnson's new teammate, got a glimpse of Johnson's brilliance in the offseason workouts. What Bush saw validated what he'd observed in the five seasons he spent with the Saints and two with the Dolphins.

"Watching from afar, I knew he was a great player," Bush said during mini-camp. "Seeing what he does in practice, it's pretty amazing – seeing some of the catches and things he does.

"He's a hard worker and a great player. He's an even better guy. Everything about him – he's an All-Star. It shows during the week in practice."

Quarterbacks rule the NFL, and for two years, Peterson is the only non-quarterback who has been voted ahead of Johnson. That is a mighty accomplishment, and Peterson needed a near-record performance of 2,097 yards rushing in 2012 to finish No. 1 this year.

For his part, Johnson's 2012 season was one for the record books. He set the NFL's single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964, breaking the former mark of 1,848, set by the immortal Jerry Rice in 1995.

Johnson had 122 receptions, a mark exceeded by only three players in history. Marvin Harrison set the record with 143 in 2002. Tied for second with 123 each are Wes Welker, who caught his for the Patriots in 2009, and former Lion Herman Moore, who did it with the Lions in 1995.

As an anti-diva at a position that breeds individualism combined with his willingness to play – and excel – over injuries, Johnson's performance is all the more impressive.

One example of that was Game 8 at Jacksonville last season. Johnson had such a painful knee injury that he wasn't sure during pre-game warm-ups if he'd be able to play.

Johnson did not practice all week and the game plan was tailored to eliminate patterns that put pressure on the knee. Johnson did more than survive. He dominated, catching seven passes for 129 yards in a 31-14 Lions victory.

After the game, players who are used to seeing teammates play over injuries, marveled at how Johnson had put his body on the line to help win a game. Linebacker Justin Durant sought out Johnson to tell him how much his effort meant.

"I can only imagine the pain he was going through," Durant said. "He went out there and toughed it out. You've got to give it up to him. I told him how much I appreciated it."

Johnson also played a good portion of the season with damaged fingers on one hand that made it difficult for him to catch passes. Johnson dropped too many passes for his liking, but he never used the injured figures or knee as an excuse.

It was a tough season all around for the Lions, and it would get tougher as it went along. Injuries shredded the depth at wide receiver, and the Lions wound up with a confidence-shattering 4-12 record.

Johnson persevered through it all, taking hits, catching passes, taking more hits, and catching more passes, to compile one of the greatest individual seasons by any player in NFL history.

The effort and results showed up in the stats. But what fans and opponents didn't see was the work Johnson routinely puts forth in practice.

Coach Jim Schwartz remarked on that when Johnson was given a day off during mini-camp.

"Every time he doesn't practice is another time he won't dive for a ball," Schwartz said. "He won't lay out over the top of somebody to make a catch and stuff like that."