Allen Park — The Lions offense is an intricate string of what-ifs. It starts with Matthew Stafford, of course, who always seems on the verge of something bigger, but hasn't made the leap.
What if the revamped offensive line really is stronger? What if rookie Ameer Abdullah can be the big-play threat Reggie Bush no longer was? What if Eric Ebron actually can be a dependable pass-catcher?
All intriguing possibilities, and then this: What if Calvin Johnson can't still be Calvin Johnson?
Seems silly to even ask, but Johnson will be 30 in September, with eight NFL seasons of brutal wear. Injuries dogged him last season, sidelining him for all or part of five games. Many of his numbers — 1,077 yards receiving on 71 catches — were his lowest in five years, although impressive by mortal standards.
The 6-foot-5 body that made Johnson one of the greats threatens to betray him with each passing season. Naturally, there are whispers of decline when a star churns toward 30. Is it harder for him to singlehandedly alter games? Sure. Are his days as a dominant receiver over? I'm not buying that one.
For the record, neither is Johnson. Does he have big seasons left?
"No doubt," he said as the Lions wrapped up their final minicamp Thursday. "What'd I miss, four, almost five games last year? Still came up with just over 1,000. So I still have some production left."
It's not whether Johnson believes it, or you believe it, or I believe it. It's whether opposing defenses believe it, and you can bet he'll draw the respectful attention he always has, until he shows it's no longer warranted. Whether that's still a year or two away, the Lions need to use it while they have it.
Johnson never has been affected by high praise, so I doubt he'll be affected by whispers. He had a nasty high ankle sprain last season and broken fingers and an aching knee the year before. Because he's so important to the offense, and so diligent in practice, he takes a beating. Coaches had to remind him not to risk injury by diving for passes in minicamp.
"I feel good, man, I'm in a good place right now," Johnson said. "I had a whole offseason to heal up. The biggest difference from last year is, we know the (Joe Lombardi) offense way better, simply because it's the second year in. I can almost say we're 100 percent better than last year at this time."
The Lions and Stafford glimpsed life without Calvin, and to their credit, adjusted well. In case everyone forgot — and it seems that way sometimes — the Lions were 11-5 and nearly won a controversial road playoff game against the Cowboys. The offense ranked 22nd in scoring (20.1), and Stafford's numbers dropped, but that included a career-low 12 interceptions. He was smarter and safer, completing 60.3 percent of his passes, a number that still needs to go higher.
Much of the team's success was pegged to the dominant defense under Teryl Austin. It was good coaching by Jim Caldwell to play to that strength, to rein in Stafford and let the defensive line chew things up.
That worked with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and others clogging the middle. It's a stretch to say it will work just as effectively now.
Even with all their linebackers returning and plenty of young talent toeing the line, it's unlikely the Lions will win 11 games solely on defense.
Worth the price
Which brings us back to those what-ifs. Most pundits have the Lions dropping off — Vegas lists their over-under win total at 8.5 — ostensibly because of Suh's departure. The less-spoken reason is the offense, and while we debate how much more Stafford can do, we also wonder how much Johnson has left.
His teammates don't wonder. Golden Tate, who led the team with 1,331 receiving yards, has flourished partly because Johnson draws so much attention, but the Lions need another receiver — Ebron, TJ Jones, Lance Moore, someone — to lighten the load. Pro Football Focus recently used metrics to label Johnson one of the NFL's most-overpaid veterans, because last season's production doesn't match his salary ($20.6 million).
Stafford said the explanation is obvious.
"The guy's a warrior, and he was banged up quite a bit the whole year," Stafford said. "As tough as it is on us as an offense to really be explosive and function without him, I know it's just as tough on him. He hates not being out there about as much as we hate not having him."
The clock never stops ticking, and it's moving on Stafford too. The former No. 1 pick has led the Lions to two playoff games in six seasons, and much more is expected. Last season, less was demanded and Stafford threw for 4,257 yards, his lowest total in five seasons.
That's fine with Caldwell, who fully recognizes Johnson's impact. In fact, suggest the offense needs to be more explosive, and he chomps on his words.
"We're more interested in winning, and winning does not necessarily mean you score 50 points a game," Caldwell said. "We have a good defense, and when you have that, you play complementary football. So we have to make certain we take care of the ball, improve our completion percentage, catch the balls thrown to us, and keep people off our quarterback's back. A lot of people like to point and say, well, Matthew's gotta do this or this. Mathew just has to do his job, plain and simple."
Second time around
Relatively quietly, Caldwell has made the Lions a sounder team. He's not asking Stafford to wing it and fire it to Johnson every chance he gets. Stafford always has been a solid leader but his command is growing, and he talks about being aggressive and efficient at the same time.
The second season in any offense is bound to look better, right?
"Everybody's a little more comfortable with what we're doing," Johnson said. "I mean, shoot, we were 11-5 and we weren't even running as smooth as we wanted to run."
What if things run smoother with a healthy Megatron? That's the what-if that could help answer all the others.