Detroit Lions: Calvin Johnson is no Barry Sanders

Dec 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) before the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) before the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /

Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders are both generational talents who played for the Detroit Lions, but that is where the similarities end.

When news initially broke that Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was contemplating retirement, parallels to former Lions running back Barry Sanders started immediately.

On the surface, that’s natural. Both are generational talents who did things on the football field that few, if ever, have done before or will do again. Add in that both played for the Detroit Lions with a potentially early end to their careers and it’s easy to make Calvin out as the next Lions superstar who called it quits because he was tired of playing for a poor franchise. The comparison couldn’t be more wrong.

Oct 29, 2015; Chandler
Oct 29, 2015; Chandler /

That’s a fair narrative for the end of Sanders’ career. He was in the prime of his career and within striking distance of the NFL’s all-time rushing record – still held by Walter Payton at the time. But as late July arrived with training camp set to begin, Barry faxed in a letter announcing his retirement to the Wichita Eagle.

If there is a more shocking retirement in NFL history, it doesn’t come to mind. There was no sign this was a possibility or no warning to the organization. Barry just decided he was done and that was it without so much as a phone call to the Lions.

The Lions have hardly been a success story during Johnson’s career with an 0-16 season and just two playoff appearances in his nine seasons as a pro. But for all the losing and ups followed by downs, Calvin has never seemed discouraged or disgruntled like Barry.

And unlike Barry who enjoyed a healthy career, there has been a big physical toll taken on Calvin’s body. Calvin played in 135 out of 144 games in his career but it became more newsworthy when he wasn’t listed on the injury report than when he was. There was always a nagging injury, like an ankle, knee or finger pointing in the wrong direction.

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Further, Calvin’s prime is in the past. The numbers don’t look bad for last season but he often looked more like a physically freakish possession receiver than the game-breaking threat he was just a few years ago. It doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to see the Calvin Johnson-Barry Sanders parallel start to diverge.

A report today from ESPN’s Adam Schefter sheds more light on the situation between Calvin Johnson and the Lions that further highlights the differences between Johnson and Sanders. Calvin is not making some rush to judgement. In fact, his pondering retirement is a year in the making. From Schefter:

"Detroit Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson told his family and a close circle of friends before last season that 2015 would be his final year in the NFL, and he delivered the same message to coach Jim Caldwell the day after the regular season ended, sources told ESPN."

It’s easy to look back at a disappointing 2015 season and say that the Lions’ losing has gotten the best of Johnson. Schefter’s report nips that narrative in the bud by pointing out that it was before the season that Calvin had ideas of making 2015 his swan song – one season after the Lions won 11 games and returned to the playoffs, only to lose on the road in controversial fashion.

Schefter goes on to say that Matthew Stafford and Stephen Tulloch were among the people privy to Calvin’s thinking before the season. With Jim Caldwell being told as soon as the season ended, the organization was informed that retirement was a real possibility. There is obviously a big difference in doing this well ahead of free agency and the draft than faxing a notice to an out of town newspaper as training camp is about to begin.

More Schefter:

"Caldwell told Johnson not to rush his decision — to take his time, sources told ESPN. Out of respect to Caldwell, Johnson agreed to do just that, according to sources."

Barry was within his rights to do what he did but the phrase “out of respect to” does not apply as it does here with Calvin. Whereas Sanders had soured on the organization he played for, Johnson’s retirement decision is being made with his organization in mind.

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Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders are two of the greatest the NFL has ever seen at their respective positions. There are similarities in their careers, but if this is the end for Calvin Johnson, how he goes out won’t be another similarity to add to the list.