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Wojo: Calvin could be sending Lions a message

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

If Calvin Johnson truly wants to go, he probably should go. You hope he doesn’t, you hope he heals up, you hope he doesn’t mind being Megatron for a while longer.

But if Johnson retires, fans shouldn’t be mad, and I don’t think they will be. Sad? Absolutely. Another Lions icon could leave at 30, not in his prime but still an integral part of the team. And while Johnson contemplates it, I’m struck again by the incredible, disturbing Circle of the Lions, around and around, bizarre fates repeating themselves.

The Lions are giving Johnson time to think through this, which is the right thing to do. And Johnson is giving the team advance warning, also the right thing to do, something Barry Sanders didn’t do in 1999 when he walked away on the eve of training camp, shortly after turning 31.

I believe Johnson’s possible retirement is mostly about his health, and when a player starts thinking about exiting, that usually means it’s time. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a message in Johnson’s strange missive, in which he didn’t use the word “retire” but talked about “evaluating options for my future.”

I doubt it’s a ploy, but it could be a plea, a muted cry for help, for any sign the franchise will get it right. He’s been seeking it without saying it for many of his nine seasons here, as Sanders did for 10 seasons. Johnson just spent a tumultuous year battling another batch of injuries, while listening to whispers the Lions might ask him to take a pay cut, or trade him, or cut him.

Johnson greatly admires Jim Caldwell, as many Lions players do. Indications are growing Caldwell will be back, but until the team hires a general manager, nobody’s certain. Nobody’s certain offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who helped reinvigorate Matthew Stafford and the offense, will be back.

With the short statement he released Wednesday, perhaps Johnson is essentially asking this: I’m hurting and I’m concerned about the team’s direction, so before I consider putting my body through the gauntlet again, tell me, is it worth it? I’m willing to listen, but do you really want me back?

Hunting for clues

Sanders spent an entire offseason wondering about the franchise’s direction under Bobby Ross but didn’t do much to seek out answers. Maybe Johnson went public to avoid Sanders’ mistake, and also to explore Caldwell’s status. If Caldwell were fired by the new GM, there’s a chance Cooter would be gone, and there’s a significant chance Johnson wouldn’t be interested in starting over again. This could be his not-so-subtle, sincere attempt to keep the coaching staff intact.

Why would he do that after a 7-9 season, marked by the firings of GM Martin Mayhew, president Tom Lewand, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and others? The allure of the 6-2 finish might be part of it. Johnson said at the end he thought the Lions were “real close” to winning.

It’s clear Johnson is beaten up beyond normal bounds after years of being the primary (sometimes only) receiving target. He’s had ankle, knee, back and finger injuries, and he practices sporadically. Getting beaten up physically is part of the job, but a great player feels the ravages more than most. Any slip in a star’s performance is noticeable and Megatron has slipped, although he finished 10th in the league with 1,214 yards receiving.

Getting beaten down mentally is the unspoken issue. Johnson, like Sanders, abhors the rollercoaster of redundancy — the same questions, the same mediocrity, the same singular focus on them, without consistent help from, say, the offensive line or coaching. The Lions’ two greatest players are so similar, in beloved stature and respectful manner, it’s eerie. Just like Sanders, I think the soft-spoken Johnson doesn’t know how to break the bond, doesn’t want to demand anything because he doesn’t think it’s his place.

Sanders wasn’t prepared for Ross’ feisty style and didn’t know how to respond. Johnson raves about Caldwell’s leadership qualities, how he understands a player’s unique abilities and limitations. The Lions needed to make changes in the front office, obviously, but without a new GM, Johnson doesn’t have anyone who can lay out the plan. And when you play for the Lions, sadly enough, the Great Unknown of a new regime is often scarier than the current known.

Physical toll

Since Johnson arrived in 2007, the Lions are 54-90 with two playoff losses. He’s played through Matt Millen, Rod Marinelli, 0-16 and The Process. You survive that, you figure there’s a payoff eventually, right?

Johnson has gotten a financial payoff, so I don’t think this is about money, unless you equate money with pride. His contract is a hefty $24-million hit on the salary cap next season, and while he rarely seems offended by anything, he could be offended it was so flippantly discussed. The Lions haven’t said much, but speculation about his future has been rampant. If it bothered him, he never showed it, possibly until now.

Listen, this might be as simple as many suggest, that Johnson is worn out. With so much awareness about football’s toll on the body, especially the brain, retiring after nine years isn’t shocking. He has a 2-year-old son and is getting married this summer. He has a Georgia Tech education, is raised well by a good family, and he likely won’t be lost without football.

The sport is brutal, and imagine the misery Johnson just endured. Injuries robbed him of big-play ability, yet defenses still treated him like Megatron. Most double-teamed him, and the Lions ridiculously took half a season — and a coordinator shuffle — to figure out how to implement other pieces while still using him.

In that regard, Johnson is blessed and cursed — blessed with incomparable ability, cursed by circumstance. If his career ends early, it’s unfortunate, but at least this time, the Lions might get a chance to respond before it’s too late.