Before Calvin Johnson gave defensive coordinators fits, another in the honolulu blue did the same. Lions insider Mike Mady evaluates and compares the impact of two of the greatest to ever wear a Detroit Lions uniform.
Every so often, in professional sports, a supremely talented player comes along and captivates a city with such a propensity for production that only longevity could separate them from the record books.
These players often provide a spark to a floundering franchise, offering a decade or two of excellence, before their inenvitable exit drops that very same franchise into mediocrity.
Barry Sanders currently ranks third among the league's all-time rushing leaders with 15,269 yards.
For the 10-year period spanning between 1979 and 1988, the Detroit Lions were an NFL afterthought, compiling a 56-95 record (.371 winning percentage) with two playoff appearances and no playoff wins.
In 1989, the Lions used the third-overall selection in the NFL entry draft to select Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders.
The fleet-footed runner provided an immediate lift -- in style -- to the Lions as they improved to 7-9 during his rookie campaign and reached the postseason by his third season.
Sanders provided more than a boost in the standings; he also brought a spotlight to a team that had little – if any – relevance over the last few decades. His highlight films continue to awe generations since his shocking retirement at the age of 31, when he departed the franchise on the eve of training camp in 1999.
Without Sanders, the Lions maintained mediocrity for two seasons (8-8, 9-7) before returning to occupy their status as league doormat once again.
Six consecutive seasons of double-digit losses followed before the Lions were able to secure their next superstar in the 2007 NFL draft, using the No. 2 overall selection on Calvin Johnson.
Similar to Sanders, Johnson contributed to a 7-9 record during his rookie season – although he admittedly did not have as large of an impact as Sanders.
After his rookie season, Johnson took on a larger role with the team but his individual success did not translate to wins, as the team suffered through the league’s first 0-16 year during his sophomore campaign.
Since then, the Lions have taken strides every season, finally returning to the playoffs in 2012 – a season that was largely propelled by "Megatron's" 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Johnson has ascended the ranks of individual NFL players and is widely considered one of the league’s best, regardless of position. And like Sanders, his presence on the field alone can have nightmarish -- sometimes almost comically bad -- results for the opposition.
A Lions player has not received such attention and acclaim since Sanders graced highlight reels on a weekly basis.
Recently, Johnson was named the league’s third-best player on NFL Network’s top 100 players list, a list based on the opinions of the players themselves.
This ranking of players was not around in Sanders’ day but there is little doubt that the electrifying runner would have perennially ranked high. To support that belief is the fact that Sanders is one of only nine non-quarterbacks to win or share the league’s MVP award over the last 30 years.
Statistically, both superstars are comparable.
In five seasons, Johnson has racked up 5,872 receiving yards compared to the 6,789 rushing yards registered by Sanders during his first five years. Johnson has caught 49 touchdown passes while Sanders rushed for 55.
Those numbers are comparable and any (ed. note: blasphemy warning) talent gap also closes a bit more when considering that running backs have an easier transition to the NFL as well as have the tendency to be more productive because they touch the football more often.
But that's another identical trait: each player could change the complexion of the game without having to touch the football. For a skill position, that's rare.
In addition to their unique talents, both Sanders and Johnson conduct themselves with a sense of humility. Both remain relevant despite not calling for the spotlight. Despite being born with physical gifts that cannot be earned through coaching, both also share an outstanding work ethic, putting in the extra time and sweat to master their craft.
Sanders brought the Lions relevance and helped drag them from the NFL cellar to NFL contenders. Unfortunately, the Lions only won a single playoff game during his historic career.
Calvin Johnson has caught 49 touchdown passes in his five professional seasons, including 16 in 2011. (US Presswire - Brett Barr)
Following in Sanders' footsteps, Johnson has the opportunity to shatter records while helping the Lions contend for something his predecessor could never secure: the franchise's first Super Bowl.
After a decade or two have passed, Lions fans may look back realizing how fortunate they were to have watched not only the two of the greatest players ever to wear Honolulu blue and silver, but two athletes that changed conventional wisdom on the football field.
The only question will be, when looking back on Johnson’s tenure, will fans be just counting their blessings -- or will they be counting championships as well?
Barry or Calvin? Who is your favorite Detroit Lion?
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