You have to go back to 1957 to find the last time that the Detroit Lions won the National Football League Championship. The Lions are one of four NFL franchises that have never appeared in the Super Bowl, while they have only won one playoff game since 1957. The Lions are also the only NFL franchise to go 0-16 as they did this in 2016. As a team the Lions have been inept, but that hasn’t stopped great individual efforts by the some of the men who have worn the “Honolulu blue”. Players such as Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders, and Barry Sanders enjoyed stellar NFL careers which led to them being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But as good as these players were individually, they were enable to catapult the Lions to success as the organization has been passed by. And unfortunately for the Lions, you can add another player to that list.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson was the second overall pick of the 2007 National Football League Draft by the Lions. At 6’5″, Johnson had tremendous size for a wide receiver and he was able to blend that with rare speed for a person his size. It didn’t take Johnson that long show that he was the real deal as by his second season with the Lions, he was able to record 78 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns. By 2010, Johnson would be selected to his first Pro Bowl, and the following season would see him lead the league in receiving yards with 1,681 yards, while tallying 96 receptions. In 2012, Johnson would lead the NFL in receptions with 122, while he would also set a single-season league record with 1,964 receiving yards. By this point Johnson had been given the nickname “Megatron” after the character from Transformers due to his freakish ability as he had the respect of everyone around football. However as good as Johnson was individually, he could not help the Lions elevate to the next level.
Since the NFC North was formed in 2002, the Lions are the only team that calls the division home to have never finished in first place. The Lions made the playoffs twice with Johnson on the roster, but he was never able to help them get that elusive playoff victory, while Detroit never had consecutive winning seasons with him. And as the losing continued in Detroit while the injuries were beginning to mount for Johnson, he abruptly decided to retire from the National Football League at the end of the 2015 season at the age of 30.
Johnson’s retirement sparked numerous debates as him walking away from the Lions while leaving some quality years on the table brought back memories when Barry Sanders retired following the conclusion of the 1998 National Football League season at the age of 30. Sanders retired as the NFL’s second all-time leading rusher with 15,269 rushing yards. And like Johnson, Sanders simply got tired of the losing as he was a part of the only Lions playoff victory since 1957 when Detroit defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the 1991 NFC Divisional Playoffs. But whereas it was bad enough to see two of the best players in Lions franchise history walk away from the game early, it is how they have been treated since then by the franchise in which they played for.
When Sanders walked away, the Lions held a grudge against him as they felt that this was a ploy on his part to get out of his contract in order to play for another team. However Sanders was done and the losing by the Lions continued once he left. After initially being quiet about walking away from the National Football League, Johnson has recently opened up about leaving and how he has been treated by the Lions.
Since Johnson retired he had to pay back part of a roster bonus to the Lions, and he also let it be known that he would not be let out of his contract or traded to another team because he simply wanted to win. And when you hear cases such as that of Sanders and Johnson, it is no wonder why the Lions have been as bad as they are.
The issues with the Lions go back to “The Curse of Bobby Layne”. Layne was the Lions starting quarterback as he helped Detroit win three National Football League Championships during the 1950’s. But when Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958, he claimed that the Lions would not win for another 50 years. But the Lions have taken it a step further as it has been 60 years and they still have not won.
Some people might be critical of Johnson’s comments, but what is the purpose of keeping a player on the roster who simply does not want to be there? Just like it was with Sanders in 1998, it would have been very easy for the Lions to have traded Johnson to a contender and wish him all the best with his new team. However the Lions decided to take the low road which makes them continuously look like the bad guy.
Johnson finished his National Football League career with 731 receptions, 11,619 receiving yards, and 83 receiving touchdowns. Johnson was selected to six Pro Bowl teams and although that there are some people who would have liked to see him stick around for a few more years in order to solidify his Hall of Fame resume, he should be commended for walking away instead of padding his stats on a losing team.
The Lions never did right by Johnson as they never put a championship team around him. There were talented players on the Lions such as quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but the losing culture of the Lions has reigned supreme. And as good as Johnson was, that was simply too difficult to overcome.
So now as training camp is set to open in a few days for the Lions, there will once again be some optimism for them; just like it is for the other 31 teams around the National Football League. But whereas the Ford family who has owned the Lions since 1963 has never done right by the team or its fanbase, I don;t see things changing anytime soon in Motown. And as for anyone who is expecting anything different other than the same old futility on the part of the Lions might want to get their heads examined.