Detroit — Near the end of a year full of unkept promise, and a season full of wasted opportunities, and a game full of the kind of good-grief moments only a Lions fan can understand, this was the only thing left to cheer.
Calvin Johnson, cradling history. Still holding up his end of the bargain.
And when the deed was done Saturday night, with the Lions' peerless receiver hauling in a 26-yard catch across the middle with 2:57 to play in a 31-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the crowd of 63,849 at Ford Field erupted in genuine appreciation.
Johnson hadn't just broken Jerry Rice's single-season record for receiving yards — a mark he'd worked tirelessly to reach even as this NFL season fell woefully incomplete in Detroit — he'd run right past it, the way he has so many defenders in his six-year NFL career.
And as Johnson trotted to the sideline, sharing a brief hug with his father, Calvin Sr., as he handed him a souvenir bound for his home, not Canton — "Oh, no, that's my ball," Johnson laughed after the game — you could sense a quiet satisfaction amid the din.
"When you're in the game, you're still in the moment," Johnson explained later, with his father standing a few feet away, still holding the treasured football. "I don't think I even said anything to my dad when I gave him the ball. I just gave him a hug. But when I think back on it, it was a special moment."
In a season that certainly could've used a few more from this team. That, of course, is why even Johnson was calling his own record-setting run "bittersweet" the past couple weeks, as the Lions stumbled to another losing season — and then some.
If you were to paint a portrait of that, I suppose it would look something like the scene in the hallway outside the Lions' locker room Saturday night, where a year ago the team celebrated their first playoff berth in more than a decade. On this night, Johnson was greeted by the team's 87-year-old owner, William Clay Ford Sr., who offered his congratulations.
"I just told him I appreciate the support," Johnson said. "And even though we're not where we want to be, we'll keep working our tails off to get there."
Ford Sr. then offered a few reassuring words — "We'll get there," or something to that effect — and Johnson headed in to join his teammates, who were waiting — and waiting — with an ovation of their own.
"Absolutely," left guard Rob Sims said. "Coach (Jim Schwartz) said we were going to sit here and wait as long as it takes to congratulate him. He deserves every minute of it, and more."
Johnson earns it
You get what you deserve in this league, everyone who plays this game agrees. And what Calvin Johnson gets, no matter who you ask, is the hard-earned respect of his peers. Rice, arguably the greatest player in NFL history, said repeatedly this past week — and again in a taped message played Saturday night at Ford Field — that he was just fine with handing one of his records to the $20-million man known as Megatron. (And the guy who might finally have broken that so-called Madden Curse, by the way.)
"I'll be the first one to congratulate this guy," Rice said, "because I know what he stands for."
That's what his teammates were standing for, too.
"Typical, humble Calvin," Sims said. "He told us, 'This is a team effort,' and all that kind of stuff. (But) this wasn't no team effort. It was a man amongst boys out there, playing at the highest level on the biggest stage for the world to see."
And what many expected would take two games to accomplish — Johnson entered Saturday's game against the league-leading Falcons needing 182 yards to surpass Rice — he almost accomplished in three quarters.
He broke Herman Moore's single-season franchise record (1,686 yards) with his second catch of the night, a 49-yarder on a crossing pattern that put everyone on notice. ("I can't even lie," Johnson admitted later. "I thought, 'That's a big chunk of it right there.'") By halftime, he'd already set an NFL record with his eighth consecutive 100-yard game.
And with the Lions rallying from a 21-6 halftime deficit, and the crowd chanting his name late in the third quarter — "Calvin! Cal-vin!" — the way they used to salute Hall of Famer Barry Sanders at the Silverdome, Johnson closed to within a handful of yards of history.
But as has been the Lions' problem all season, the closer they get to success, well, the more you wonder if they'll ever get there.
With first-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Stafford felt pressure and threw one away. Then came a handoff to Mikel Leshoure for a 2-yard gain. And then came a quarterback draw — a checkdown by Stafford that might've been the perfect call had guard Stephen Peterman held his block — for another 2-yard gain. On came the field-goal unit at point, and the frustrated boos.
And it wouldn't be until the game was already decided that Johnson finally caught his next pass. He went on to finish with 11 catches for 225 yards, putting him at 1,892 yards for the season, well within reach of 2,000 — the magic number only Rice ever openly chased. Until now.
"We've got another game left," Johnson said, smiling, "so you never know what can happen."
Bright spot amid the gloom
But what happens when an individual achievement like this comes in the middle of a miserable season like the one the Lions are finishing now, with seven straight losses and only the home finale with Chicago left to play?
"With the loss, it is tough," Johnson admitted late Saturday night, lamenting three costly turnovers — including a fumble of his own — that led to 17 points for the Falcons. "But at the same, it took a lot of work, man. So you can't take that thing away."
People certainly will try, though. On ESPN's prime-time broadcast, even ex-NFL coach Jon Gruden, one of Johnson's biggest fans, called it a "tarnished" record, alluding to the Lions' 4-11 record and all that "meaningless yardage" the Lions' offense has put up — in the fourth quarter, in vain, in defeat.
Stafford, who, barring injury, will break the NFL record for most pass attempts in a season next week, also made his own dubious history Saturday night. He not only passed Bobby Layne for most career completions in franchise history — at the age of 24 — he also broke Joe Montana's 25-year-old record for most passing yards (443) in a game without a touchdown pass.
That alone shows you how far the Lions have come, and how far they have to go.
But when you consider how little help Johnson has had, other than Stafford, in amassing these stats — flanked by the likes of Kris Durham and Brian Robiskie in recent weeks — Schwartz equated Johnson's 200-yard game to "a running back getting 300 yards against nothing but eight-man boxes."
"I mean, he's been carrying us," Schwartz said.
On this night, at least, everyone had no choice but to notice. And applaud.