ALLEN PARK -- Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson may have been the National Football League’s best kept secret for the first three years of his NFL career. Johnson was drafted in 2007 with the No. 2 overall pick by the Lions and entered the league as a blue-chip prospect possessing physical tools capable of making even elite receivers blush.
Through the first three seasons of his career, the city of Detroit had a front-row seat to the spectacle known as Megatron, witnessing the 6-5, 236-pounder haul in 21 touchdown passes while averaging nearly 16 yards per catch.
Johnson’s quiet personality rarely matched his thunderous play, causing him to be overlooked nationally despite being beloved locally.
There was a change when the team added wide receiver Nate Burleson in the 2010 offseason.
“He deserves recognition,” said receiver Burleson earlier in the season. “He’s quiet, quiet as a church mouse. He’s loud on game day but he doesn’t talk and he doesn’t gloat too much or boast about the type of talent that he is. I told him when I got here; ‘I’ll do that for you. I got this, I’ll tell everybody how great you are.’”
Burleson’s addition was more than a marketing campaign for Johnson, as it added a competent receiver to the Lions, forcing opposing defenses to consider the damage that could be inflicted from the other side of the field.
Johnson registered 77 receptions, 1,092 yards and 12 touchdowns his fourth season en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Still, entering 2011, not everyone was sold on Johnson’s legitimacy as the league’s best receiver.
ESPN analyst Chris Carter neglected to mention Johnson as one of the league’s top-six receivers in a now infamous radio interview prior to the beginning of the season. Though Carter’s opinion provoked the ire of most Lions fans, the truth was, many analysts had not seen enough of Johnson – due to the lack of exposure the Lions generally receive – to fairly asses his rank amongst the game’s best.
Johnson ensured the spotlight remained on him during the start of the 2011 season, recording 451 yards and nine touchdowns in his first five games. The torrid pace has since cooled as he’s recorded a respectable but less impressive 288 yards and one touchdown in his last four contests.
Johnson’s reduced statistical output is not a slight against his play but rather a testament to the supreme respect -- and accompanying attention -- he receives from opposing defensive coordinators.
“I think everybody from the beginning has keyed on Calvin Johnson,” said head coach Jim Schwartz on Wednesday. “He is hard to hide. Particularly in the New Orleans game this week, they tried their very best to double him on every single play... It opened up a lot of stuff underneath. I don’t know if you noticed some of the screen passes, the check downs, there was a lot of room in there because of Calvin Johnson and the respect that they had for him.”
Burleson, who also shared a field with receiver Randy Moss, said Johnson receives comparable attention from opposing defenses to that of the seven-time Pro Bowler.
“Very similar,” said Burleson. “You do what you can to stop him by any means necessary. I said when I first got here, if you don’t have help on Calvin he’s going to score a touchdown… so I try to be slick and use my reverse psychology and bait defensive coordinators to give us one-on-one coverage so we could get Calvin the ball, but they don’t fall for it. I do look forward to the day the D-coordinator is bold enough to not give a safety to Calvin because if you don’t put two guys on him he’s going to scorch the defense.”
Cornerback and teammate Chris Houston compares Johnson to another athlete.
“It is just like saying you’re playing Michael Jordan,” said Houston. “Are you going to let him go one-on-one with just one person when you know he’s the best on the court?”
The answer is an emphatic no. Even when it may seem Johnson is singled covered, he rarely is, usually having a high safety cheating over to his side of the field while carefully watching the quarterback’s eyes.
Basking in Johnson's glow includes opposing players – as if it were up to them, they most likely would double-cover him as well.
“I would say if a guy’s national nickname is Megatron, that unless you’ve got Optimus Prime on your team—let’s double him up,” said Vikings defensive end Jared Allen.
Optimus Prime is not currently signed to a NFL roster.