O'Hara's Friday Focus: Calvin Johnson can climb high enough to put his record out of reach

Posted Dec 28, 2012

There are records beyond compare in every sports – home runs, hockey goals, points in basketball, standards in track and field that could last for decades – and the record for season yards could rise to that level.

Calvin Johnson sits at the top of the list in receiving yards for a season, but he can climb higher – high enough to put the record out of reach.

Johnson occupies a lofty position, and it is all the more impressive because he surpassed the legendary Jerry Rice to attain it.

Beating out Rice in anything is worthy of consideration as one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Johnson has done that, moving into the class of legends with 1,892 receiving yards going into the Lions’ final game of the season against the Bears at Ford Field on Sunday.

Rice set the previous record, with 1,848 yards in 1995 for the San Francisco 49ers. Johnson had 225 yards in the last game against Atlanta to move past Rice.

As the Lions close out their most disappointing season in more than a decade, other statistical standards are within Johnson’s immense reach. He is 108 yards short of reaching 2,000 for the season, and 161 away from matching Barry Sanders’ rushing total of 2,053 yards, set in 1997.

Johnson has never made any predictions about what he wants to accomplish, but he has indicated that he could raise the yardage record to a level where it could stand for several years – just like it took 17 seasons for someone to break Rice’s record.

There are records beyond compare in every sports – home runs, hockey goals, points in basketball, standards in track and field that could last for decades – and the record for season yards could rise to that level.

“I think getting to 2,000 would kind of put that record away for a while,” Johnson wrote in his weekly blog for Detroitlions.com.

“You never know what’s going to happen, but that’s real tough to reach. To get this far and make it to where we are right now, it’s crazy.

“I couldn’t imagine doing it again soon.”

The Lions and Bears have other things to play for Sunday besides Johnson adding to his record.

The outcome is particularly important to the Bears. They can make the NFC playoffs as a wild card if they beat the Lions and the Vikings lose or Sunday night’s home game against the Packers.

For the Lions, the only motivation is to end their seven-game losing streak and get some measure of satisfaction of playing the spoiler role against a rival in the NFC North.

Because of the way both teams have played of late, the pick for Sunday is a coin flip.  The Bears are 2-5 after a 7-1 start to the season. The Lions’ losing streak speaks for itself.

In my pick for Sunday, I like the Lions a little more than I like the Bears: Lions 23, Bears 21.

This week’s Friday Focus focuses heavily on Johnson, and where he stands in relation to other sports records, along with a look back at the first Lions-Bears game and some key stats and personnel issues:

Opportunity -- Johnson 2012 vs. Rice 1995: Johnson’s record has been analyzed and dissected to see how it compares to what Rice did in 1995. It’s all fair game and part of the business.

One issue that cannot be debated is the relative opportunities Rice and Johnson had in their respective offenses. The stats prove that they were almost identical equal-opportunity pass-catchers in their record-setting seasons.

In all 16 games in 1995, the 49ers attempted 644 passes, ran the ball 415 times and had 33 quarterback sacks. They had 1,092 offensive snaps.

Through 15 games, the Lions have thrown 698 passes, ran 317 times and had 28 quarterback sacks. That is a total of 1,097 snaps – only five more than the 49ers had in 1995.

Based on a 60 percent completion rate and 29 percent chance the Lions run the ball on a given play, the percentages of play selection indicate that less than two of those extra five plays would have been a completed pass (1.58 to be exact) – with no assurance the pass would have been thrown to Johnson. He has been targeted on 27 percent of the Lions pass attempts.

Boiling down all those numbers, Johnson has had no real advantage over Rice in terms of volume of plays. And there is no way to compute the lack of support from not having Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew as other targets.

The bottom line: greatness need not be measured strictly by stats. You know it when you see it, and I’ve seen Rice and Johnson – two of the all-time greats.

Bear claws: Opponents have tried numerous tactics to stop Johnson, but no team has been more effective than the Bears. One coverage scheme has been “the vice,” using two defensive backs to bracket Johnson at the line of scrimmage.

The Bears have a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. Tillman was on Johnson most of the time in their first meeting in Week 7 at Soldier Field. Johnson was targeted 11 times and caught three passes for 34 yards. The reception and yards were his low for the season.

Bears coach Lovie Smith doesn’t expect to stop Johnson, but hopes he can be contained.

“He’s one of the best players in the game, so you just have a plan for him,” Smith said in a conference call interview with the Detroit media. “He just takes a lot of people. That’s what we base our defense on – getting as many guys as possible around the ball.

“Last time we played him isn’t going to have much to do with how this game goes. I’ll just say we know who he is, and we’re spending a lot of time trying to come up with a plan to slow him down a little bit. Nobody can stop him.”

Stats/personnel update:

Johnson vs. Bears: In two games against the Bears last season, Johnson had five catches for 130 yards and a TD in a win at Ford Field and five catches for 81 yards in a loss at Soldier Field.

Matthew Stafford 5K: The Lions’ QB and the Saints Drew Brees are bidding to be the first quarterbacks with two straight 5,000-yard passing seasons. Brees set the one-season record last year with 5,476 and has 4,789 going into Sunday’s home game against Carolina.

Stafford had 5,038 yards last year and has 4,695.

Bears’ TD turnovers: They lead the NFL with 40 take-aways – 23 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries – and are second behind New England in turnover ratio at plus-16. The Lions are minus-12 in turnover ratio.

The Bears have scored 10 defensive touchdowns – eight on interceptions, two on fumble recoveries.

The Lions have no TDs on returns and have given up 10 – four on interceptions and two each on fumbles, kickoff and punt returns.

Returns turntable: Stefan Logan has told reporters that he has been taken off kickoff and punt returns for Sunday’s game. No announcement has been made on replacements, but Mike Thomas is likely to handle punts. Joique Bell could return kickoffs.

Logan has had an off season, and the last two games were especially difficult. He lost a punt against Arizona. Last week, he downed a free kick at the four-yard line, thus effectively ending any chance of a comeback in a loss to Atlanta.