This is the third part of a multi-part series covering Difference Makers in Detroit for the 2010 NFL Season. (1/Matthew Stafford 2/Tony Scheffler)
Calvin Johnson was in hiding last year.
That's no small feat for a 6-5, 240-pound wide receiver, especially one that tallied over 1,300 receiving yards in just his second professional season the previous campaign.
Yet there he is, buried beneath a plethora of individuals of lesser talent. If you're judging an NFL pass catcher based purely on the number of passes that he actually did catch, the Detroit Lions only offensive threat was merely the reflection of the team on which he played -- 32nd best in the league.
Thirty-two. That's below names like Davone Bess and Brent Celek. That's below a running back, Ray Rice. It's even below Hines Ward, who is half-retired.
It's almost low enough to go ignored.
Until you poll every defensive back in the league, anyway. Because the reality is, Calvin Johnson isn't only the most talented receiver in the National Football League, he might actually be the best.
Last year, the former No. 2 overall pick didn't have the opportunities to earn that classification, and it wasn't due to a lack of effort.
In 2009, no other receiver faced more double-coverages, and many times triple coverages, than Johnson. The prevailing thought among Detroit's opponents was rather simple: take Johnson out of the game, and dare someone else to make a play. More times than not, someone else didn't make a play. And the team's offense suffered as a result.
It was also an obvious reflection of two things: the fear Johnson's ability instilled in opposing defenses, and the complete lack of any supporting cast.
Sure, strong-armed rookie Matthew Stafford created glimpses of excitement with Johnson, but at the end of the day, Stafford was still green. His only legitimate threat turned ineffective.
Beyond that handicap, Johnson didn't have a productive flanker playing across from him, something essential to any successful receiver. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, widely considered the league's top receiving threat, had the now departed Anquan Boldin (84 catches), Tim Hightower (63), and Steve Breaston (55). Each helped relieve him of defenses rolling entire coverages in his direction. Fitzgerald was rewarded with 97 receptions, along with the lofty recognition that he currently enjoys.
Johnson, meanwhile, managed just 67 catches and didn't even crack 1,000 yards. His top counterpart? Running back Kevin Smith, who finished with 41.
Lions WR Calvin Johnson struggled in 2009. This season should yield different results.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
In 2010, the scales have been tipped.
While the Lions certainly added tools to the arsenal of Stafford, they're just as much to the benefit of Johnson, whose own disappointment last year was visible on the sideline.
Since Detroit's passing attack will invariably be its bread 'n butter, the team's top resource, a talent that goes virtually unmatched across the league, must be tapped -- frequently.
In spite of a handful of talented playmakers, the offense would be incomplete, even mediocre, still barely watchable, without the presence of Johnson. Without Johnson, the Lions remain the proverbial NFC doormat, and Stafford's success would only be relative to lowered, albeit inflated, expectations.
Lions fans understand too well what happens when a young quarterback is thrust into an unwinnable environment.
Johnson makes it winnable.
Simply put, Stafford's career as a Lion, and hence Detroit's overall fate in general, is inextricably linked to Calvin Johnson.
“The more they work together, the better their chemistry will be,” according to FOXSports.com's Adam Caplan. “Getting a full offseason as the starting quarterback will do wonders for Stafford's confidence and understanding of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme."
Understanding Johnson's epic ramifications on the 2010 season, the Lions brought aboard Nate Burleson, who, unlike last year's No. 2 Bryant Johnson, cannot go ignored by the opposition. Tight end Tony Scheffler has already mastered the playbook, and has a league-wide reputation for finding whatever soft spot a defense offers. And every opposing linebacker has to be weary of not only Scheffler, but rookie scatback Jahvid Best.
“They'll finally have other options other than Johnson to go to,” said Caplan. “Johnson still will see plenty of double coverage, but the other passing options could actually hurt defenses.”
Which will leave Johnson, many times, on an island with the defense's best cornerback. And with all due respect to New York's Darrelle Revis, there isn't a defensive back in the league capable of being anything other than Calvin Johnson's sprinting partner for the better part of 60 minutes every Sunday.
Given Stafford's arm, which is on par with the best of the league, and a blossoming relationship between the two, the Lions have the makings of a tandem that could arguably place them among the league's best company. They have already evoked comparisons of Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, and even Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
It's a good thought. Johnson has the talent to make it a reality.
Nate Caminata is an award-winning journalist for FOXSports.com. He is entering his 11th year covering the Detroit Lions.