How bad must it be to play for the Detroit Lions? Was that the first thought that occurred to you when the news broke on Wednesday that Calvin Johnson is contemplating retirement or as he put it, “evaluating options” for his future?
Having just finished a 7-9 season, with a new general manager and possible new head coach to be hired, Johnson might not want to go through another franchise transition that will include a new coaching staff, a new offensive scheme and maybe an overhauled roster. Like the majority of Lions fans, he may lack faith that ownership is capable of building a winner, especially within the next couple of seasons.
The possibility that a Lions superstar player could walk away after nine NFL seasons, retiring while he’s still among the best at his position, immediately invoked memories of Barry Sanders. In 1999, the legendary running back left the team and retired after 10 seasons, when he was likely one year away from passing Walter Payton as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
Adding to the shock of Sanders’ decision was that he announced it by faxing a letter to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown paper, rather than giving the news to someone in the Detroit media or national NFL press. Making things outright weird, Sanders boarded a flight to London right before the Lions were set to begin training camp. Wow, he must have really wanted to get the hell away from the Lions. Just the thought of playing for them compelled him to leave the country.
Detroit was coming off a 5-11 record in 1998, the Lions’ second five-win season in three years. It was the fifth losing season during Sanders’ Lions tenure and the prospects of making the playoffs in 1999 looked grim. Combine that with playing for a more demanding, militaristic coach in Bobby Ross (the complete opposite from player-friendly, genial Wayne Fontes, who coached Sanders during his first eight seasons) and the idea of putting himself through the grind of another year in football held absolutely no appeal — even within reach of a cherished NFL record.
The Lions have never really recovered from the disgrace of their best player — an all-time NFL great — deciding he’d rather do anything else but play football in Detroit again. Three years later, Matt Millen took over as team president — beginning the worst era that a NFL team has ever endured, including the league’s only 0-16 season — and Sanders had to feel relief over jumping ship before the vessel sank, not just underwater but beneath the earth’s crust. Although he probably would have surpassed Payton’s record before Millen’s reign began and likely would have retired without having to endure any of those seven seasons of infamy.
Millen did do one thing right while running the Lions, however. He drafted Johnson with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2007 NFL Draft. (The fourth time was the charm, after Millen blew first-round picks on receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams in the three years prior to selecting Johnson.)
Since then, Johnson has arguably been the top receiver in the NFL. His 2011 and 2012 seasons were absolutely spectacular, averaging out to 109 catches, 1,823 yards and 11 touchdowns. But if you look at Johnson’s career numbers, you might notice that he’s only played the full 16-game schedule in four of his nine professional seasons. He’s struggled with injuries throughout his career, something that once threatened to prevent him from fulfilling his potential as an elite player. A back issue limited him to 10 starts during his rookie season. During the past seven seasons, Johnson has battled knee, thigh, hand and ankle injuries, though his physical talents allowed him to still make a significant impact on the field.
But after nine years, maybe he’s grown weary of the toll that the NFL has taken on his body. Following the end of another season, when he surely feels beaten up and broken down, the thought of getting ready for it again next year probably doesn’t sound appealing. Johnson is only 30 years old, young and healthy enough to still enjoy a prosperous life after football. He’s earned an estimated $114 million during his career. Money is never, ever going to be a problem for him and generations of his family to come, unless he’s been catastrophically careless with his finances. And Johnson doesn’t give the impression of someone who would be that irresponsible.
If I could work professionally for 5-6 years, be the BEST at my craft and then retire on millions of dollars, I’d do it today. To. Day.
— Dan Levy (@DanLevyThinks) January 6, 2016
Yet Johnson has plenty more money coming his way if he continues to play, which is what makes a possible retirement such a curious decision. The contract extension he signed in 2012 still has four years remaining with nearly $68 million to be earned if he was to play out the length of the deal. Of course, this is the NFL and it’s not completely within Johnson’s control as to whether or not he fulfills the final four years on that contract.
There has been considerable speculation that the Lions might cut Johnson before next season because of the $24 million he would cost the team on the 2016 salary cap. If he was let go, would another NFL team pay him $16 million (his 2016 salary) next season or come close to equaling the $68 million he could still earn? Probably not. And it’s also likely the Lions never would have paid him all of that money either. (Even if they keep him, Johnson’s cap hit is $21 million for 2017. This isn’t a problem that will go away next year.)
But Johnson can still get a new contract, whether it’s a reworked deal with Detroit or an offer from another NFL team. Publicly saying that he’s going to evaluate his future, in which retirement is a viable option, gives him some bargaining leverage that wouldn’t be available to him otherwise. Maybe Johnson truly is worn down by the NFL grind, tired of hurting, and ready to begin the next stage of his life. Though it’s a decision that baffles many of us who would love a professional sports career, it’s an understandable conclusion for someone who’s actually endured the experience.
Johnson hasn’t always been able to control what a catch is, thanks to the NFL’s confoundingly complex rules. But he can control how his career ends. That may be what we’re seeing here.