Post-Calvin Johnson 2016 Detroit Lions Resemble 1999 Squad

Nov 26, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) scores a touchdown while being pressured by Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe (32) during the second quarter of a NFL game on Thanksgiving at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 26, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) scores a touchdown while being pressured by Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe (32) during the second quarter of a NFL game on Thanksgiving at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Lions face life without Calvin Johnson, but weathered the loss of legendary Barry Sanders well in the short-term of the 1999 season.

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Prognosticators outside Detroit, and certain pessimistic fans and media members are saying the 2016 Detroit Lions’ season is over before it even begins. Insinuating that the loss of Calvin Johnson will be too much for this team to sustain.

These people could be right. I have written on a number of occasions that it is tough to place a thumb on how the Lions will fare this season. Usually when they have expectations, they end up 4-12, but when they are considered an after-thought, they earn a rare playoff spot.

It’s hard to predict this season’s fate (of which they’d likely do the opposite anyway), but there are some similarities with this year’s team to the one that also lost a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer 17 years ago.

Replacing a Legend

On the eve of Training Camp 1999, Barry Sanders hung ’em up after faxing a letter of retirement to the Wichita Eagle, of all places. Although fans, and Matt Millen, would hope the legendary running back would change his mind and come back, he never played another down in the NFL.

The timing of Barry’s retirement was particularly terrible. He once said that throughout that offseason, he kept hedging on whether to come back or retire, and it took him to the final day before reporting to the Silverdome to decide to end a sterling career.

This caused the Lions to scramble. How do you replace someone who was such a focal point in the offense for some many years (sound familiar)?  Detroit’s answer then was to make a trade to bring in Greg Hill. The results were rather pitiful, racking up 542 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Hill shared the backfield with other forgettables Ron Rivers and Sedrick Irvin, while being spelled by fullback Cory Schlesinger. This quartet racked up 1,094 yards, and the Lions scored just eight touchdowns on the ground, two of which came from quarterback Charlie Batch.

While Barry was often taken out in goal line situations, only scoring four times in his final year, he did account for 1,491 yards in 1998. That’s good for 4.3 YPC (2.8 for the ’99 rotation). Interesting enough, that yardage output was #20’s worst since an injury-shortened 1993 season (sound familiar, again).

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Changing Focus

The point of this is not to draw slack-jawed yokeling at how terrible the Lions’ running offense was in 1999–it was. It is to show how quickly teams can adapt, yes even the Lions. Without a reliable running game, the Lions turned to their quarterbacks, Batch and, later after injury, Gus Frerotte to get the job done.

Fans of the 1990’s Lions know that the team did sport a formidable duo on offense despite a revolving door at quarterback with Barry and Herman Moore leading the way. But by 1999, Moore was a shell of himself, heading down a declining path due to injuries, appearing in just eight games all season.

This led offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom to open up the offense to wideout Johnnie Morton (80 catches, 1,129 yards) and All-Pro tight end David Sloan (76 catches, 591 yards). The Lions were in the middle of the pack (15) for offense, but that was largely due to their poor rushing attack as the passing was ranked ninth.

After no one expected them to do much that year, they opened with two wins, first at the pre-12th Man Seattle Kingdome against the Seahawks, and then at the Silverdome, handily beating division rival Green Bay. After two straight losses, they won four straight until the bottom fell out in the second half.

Ultimately defenses caught up to the Lions one-dimensional presence and they limped to an 8-8 finish, making the playoffs and losing to Washington. The next year they were also competitive, but lost a chance to go to the playoffs on the last day of the season on a Paul Edinger field goal. After that game, the Matt Millen-era was ushered in.

So while, of course, they never really won anything, it was pretty laudable what Detroit was able to accomplish when they had no time to prepare for losing their franchise player.

Losing Megatron

Like Barry’s final year, Calvin Johnson was still the focal point of the offense, and what the defense keyed on, but his statistics did take a noticeable drop (1,214 yards was the lowest of CJ’s career when playing 16 games).

Unlike Barry, the Lions had pretty much a full offseason to prepare, with Megatron hanging up the cleats before free agency and the draft. The Lions’ main response was to sign Marvin Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals to replace him. There can be no comparisons between Jones and Barry’s replacement, because Jones is a solid NFL player while Greg Hill was not.

Similarly, there should be no comparisons between Jones and Johnson as no one can replace what CJ brought to a football field. If the Lions can get another solid year from Golden Tate, increased production from their cadre of underachieving tight ends, and much better offensive line protection for Matthew Stafford and the various running backs, they will be able to survive the loss of their superstar.

Time to Move On

There was still star power on that ’99 Lions squad. Their defense was serviceable, much like this year’s will likely be. The franchise was one year removed from a playoff appearance in 1997, just like this year’s team will be one year removed from the 11-5 season of 2014.

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Because Calvin Johnson allowed them to prepare, the 2016 Detroit Lions appear to be in a much better position, both short- and long-term, than the 1999 squad which had the ugly spectre of the Millen/Mayhew era approaching.

And for that, we as Lions’ fans, should be even more grateful of what Calvin Johnson brought to us.