Wojo: Lions must do right by Johnson if he retires

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Calvin Johnson is mulling retirement, and the Lions are staying out of the way, not saying much. And by not saying much, they might be saying something.

Johnson has many logical reasons to leave. The injuries have piled up, the team hasn’t won much, he’s a well-rounded guy with a full life ahead at 30, a family to raise and a foundation to run. If he steps aside, no one could blame him.

But here’s the unknown, and it’s delicate and mostly speculative: Is Johnson trending strongly toward retirement simply because he doesn’t want to endure the toll anymore? Or is it partly because he suspects the Lions, with new general manager Bob Quinn, don’t want him at such a high price anymore?

Listen. In an ideal situation, of course the Lions would want Johnson back. He’s a classy, distinguished icon, and they hate the impending narrative that two of their all-time greats, Johnson and Barry Sanders, walked away prematurely. Beyond the ugly perception, the Lions also would be losing a 1,200-yard receiver who might not be Megatron anymore, but certainly is a productive Mediumtron.

It might not matter what the Lions say, but they at least should say something. Quinn said last week he hadn’t talked to Johnson because “I’m not here to rush him.” The other night, former teammate and close friend Nate Burleson said it was “ridiculous” the Lions hadn’t reached out to try to entice Johnson to stay.

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To be clear, we don’t know who has spoken to Johnson, and whether Quinn has made the phone call since. And talking a player out of retirement is an iffy proposition. In a punishing sport, once the mind acknowledges the weaknesses of the body, it can’t be easy to rekindle the passion.

I don’t think Quinn or Martha Ford or Jim Caldwell should beg Johnson to return for one more season. I don’t think Matthew Stafford and teammates should do it either. It might make emotional sense and appease the fans, but it might not make business sense or health sense.

Both sides need to talk

Johnson spoke with Caldwell shortly after the season, according to an ESPN report, and said he planned to retire. The same report indicated Johnson told Stafford and Stephen Tulloch his intentions before the season. And after that, there wasn’t a whole lot that would seem to change Johnson’s mind. He suffered more nagging injuries, the team started 1-7, most of the front office was fired and a new regime took over.

The Lions did finish 6-2 and Stafford looked sharper under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Johnson also strongly endorsed retaining Caldwell, and when Quinn did, it stirred hope Johnson could be coaxed back.

If he indeed is ready to go, the Lions have to let him go. But first, they must clarify their position, so Johnson knows exactly what to base his decision on. Quinn has been busy hiring and firing, but pretty quickly, he needs to deliver the team’s unfiltered stance to Johnson and his agent, Bus Cook. Would the Lions welcome Johnson back but only with a restructured contract? Would Quinn prefer to start over without Johnson, and gain lots of salary-cap space?

Remember, Quinn learned in New England, where paying a star receiver $24 million for a year is not the Patriot Way. Neither is nostalgia, as the Patriots famously move on from well-known, well-paid players. But if Quinn and Caldwell believe Johnson’s return enhances the Lions playoff chances — if he’s healthy, it does — he deserves a one-year exemption from fiscal restraint. The Lions would save $11 million on next year’s cap if Johnson retires, but they already have about $22 million in cap space, and could get the economic break after next season.

This has to be an unemotional decision, for both sides. The Lions under William Clay Ford Sr. were swayed by public opinion, by fans’ embrace of offensive stars in the absence of, you know, actual championships. In Johnson’s nine seasons, the Lions are 54-90, 0-2 in the playoffs. Would he ache a little less if the Lions won a lot more? I suppose, but he reportedly was contemplating retirement before last season, when the Lions were coming off an 11-5 mark and a playoff appearance.

Health is a concern

Teammates long have said the media and public had no idea how frequently Johnson was hurt, from his knees to his ankles to his mangled fingers. By the end of last season, he was barely practicing. Because of his size, Johnson is an enormous target, in every way. He’s not a shifty receiver snatching passes in stride and scooting out of bounds.

Long-term health is an escalating issue in the NFL, with attention rightly focused on concussions and injuries that affect mobility. Last year, 19 players aged 30 or younger retired, although none as high profile as Johnson.

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“For me, it’s less about the percentage of how Calvin feels,” Burleson told reporters at the Super Bowl. “It’s how much are they going to actively recruit Calvin back?”

The Lions are giving Johnson space, but when a friend like Burleson speaks, it means something. Away from the field, Megatron morphs into a low-key guy who doesn’t crave the spotlight, and I doubt he craves to be wooed. But he’s human, and I bet he’d like to know how badly he is (or isn’t) wanted.

Johnson has played the game at a supreme level for a long time, and there’s no reason for either side to play a different game now, with vague inferences and sparse communication. If Johnson retires after the Super Bowl, he should be celebrated for making the move that’s right for him. Before that, the Lions need to make absolutely sure it’s the right move for them, a move they can live with.