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O'HARA: Johnson's situation different than Sanders'

Calvin Johnson is giving the Detroit Lions his best effort again, just as he has every day on and off the field since the moment he became a member of the franchise as a golden gift in the 2007 draft.

Just three days after the end of the 2015 season, Johnson has given the franchise fair notice that he is pondering his future after nine seasons with the Lions as one of the most dominant wide receivers in NFL history.

For whatever reasons -- and there are many to consider why a great player who is still close to the top of his game would call it quits at the age of 30 -- Johnson made it known publicly that his future in Detroit is in doubt.

On the face of it, Johnson simply could be giving advance word that he's had enough. The physical toll of playing nine seasons, and facing double- and triple-coverage by defensive backs intent on inflicting maximum legal punishment, cannot be discounted.

Johnson has had finger, knee and ankle injuries and, in his own words, at least one concussion.

But a lot can be read into the statement Johnson released through the team Wednesday afternoon, and the timing of making it. Many will leap to compare Johnson to Barry Sanders retiring from the Lions on the eve of training camp in 1999.

The circumstances and the way the two athletes have handled the process are worlds apart.

Sanders' retirement after having no contact with the franchise after the last game of the 1998 season left no time to plan for his absence. Management at the time had to share in the blame for assuming, wrongly, that Sanders ultimately would report and play, even though it was known inside the organization that he was dissatisfied with the way things were going.

The timing of Johnson's statement puts management on notice that the Lions might have to prepare to move on without him. That's his right, and it's fair. It leaves free-agency and the draft to do the best to fill the gap created by the loss of a great player.

One thing should be clear. Don't take for granted that Johnson will return to the Lions for a 10th season.

The fact that the team released a statement in conjunction with Johnson's can be taken to mean that the message has been taken seriously.

Johnson released the following statement:

"Like many players at this stage of their career, I am currently evaluating options for my future. I would expect to have a decision regarding this matter in the not-too-distant future."

The Lions replied as follows:

"We obviously have profound respect for Calvin and certainly understand and appreciate his decision to give proper thought and consideration to his football future."

There are two key parts in Johnson's statement.

One, he used the word "options." He did not say retirement, or anything clear-cut that he intends to retire.

However, in response to questions about about wanting to remain a Lion has never wavered from saying he wants to play in Detroit.

The other is his intent to reach a decision in "the not-too-distant future." That likely means when the fate of Jim Caldwell is retained as head coach is decided.

There is wide-spread support among Lions players for Caldwell to be brought back.

When asked about Caldwell at his regular Wednesday press conference last week, Johnson replied: "I love him."

The Lions are in the interview process for a full-time general manager, and the new person will be given authority to name the head coach. Caldwell is still under contract. Parting ways with a popular head coach would be an unpopular move.

One man's opinion: At least some thought has to be given to the possibility that Johnson is sending a warning that his future in Detroit is tied to Caldwell's. That would also mean bringing back Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator.

In the season finale against the Bears on Sunday, Johnson performed like he was making a statement with his play to keep Caldwell and Cooter.

Johnson tied his season-high of 10 catches for 137 yards, his second most of the season, and a touchdown. He made big plays in key moments all game.

When he made a 36-yard TD catch late in the third quarter to break a 10-10 tie, Johnson hugged the ball in the end zone as though to make sure it would end up on the top shelf of his trophy case.

The massive salary-cap ramifications cannot be discounted, but people who work in the front office get paid to solve those problems to keep great players players on the roster.

Regardless of how this works out, Johnson deserves credit for giving the Lions fair warning -- one that should be heeded.

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