Niyo: Lions’ Johnson appears ready to call it a career

John Niyo
The Detroit News

He has been dropping hints for some time now, even as he continued catching passes for an NFL team that has squandered his remarkable talents for nearly a full decade now.

But as Calvin Johnson laid out for one more pass in one more meaningless game in a career full of far too many of those, there was another subtle sign that maybe he’d had enough.

He cradled the football after a 36-yard touchdown pass in Sunday’s 24-20 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. And then he kept it, carrying a TD keepsake with him to the sideline for the second time in as many weeks, though he later shrugged off the significance. Sometimes he keeps ’em, he said, and “sometimes I don’t.”

But when asked if he’d considered that might be his last touchdown catch, the five-time Pro Bowl receiver and franchise all-time receiving leader simply smiled.

“Ah, man, you never know,” Johnson said. “But if it is, though, you want to go out like that.”

Not if you’re the Lions, you don’t. And with speculation swirling that he’s seriously considering retirement, the 30-year-old Johnson didn’t do much to appease those fears Wednesday.

“Like many players at this stage of their career, I am currently evaluating options for my future,” Johnson said in a statement released by the team. “I would expect to have a decision regarding this matter in the not-too-distant future.”

In the same release, the Lions followed that with a statement of their own, “We obviously have profound respect for Calvin and certainly understand and appreciate his decision to give proper thought and consideration to his football future.”

Now then, it’d be easy to write that off as a negotiating ploy, what with Johnson on the books for a hefty salary ($15.9 million) and even bigger cap hit ($24 million) next season. If the Lions were hoping to rework his contract this offseason, threat of retirement certainly would pour cold water on that idea.

But this feels less like a bargaining stance — or even a trade demand — and more about the toll his body and mind have taken since entering the league in 2007, having absorbed all the blows a player of his stature takes over 135 regular-season games and 1,300-plus targets, over nine seasons and 90 losses.

And not unlike his superstar predecessor in Detroit — Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, who retired at age 31 on the eve of training camp in 1999 — it’s about deciding how much is too much, particularly when you’re not winning enough.

Injuries matter

Johnson has made it clear how much he likes playing with quarterback Matthew Stafford. The two were particularly chummy after Sunday’s game, sharing an embrace as they left the field together that some viewed as a possible farewell.

And he certainly respects head coach Jim Caldwell, whose status remains in limbo pending the outcome of the Lions’ general manager search. In a rare one-on-one interview before this season, Johnson told me “he’s easily the best head coach I’ve come across in this league.”

Lions' Calvin Johnson mulls retirement

“Not to knock any other coaches, but if I had him my whole career, man, I’d be playing 20 years like Jerry Rice,” Johnnson said, citing Caldwell’s even-keeled demeanor and his player-friendly approach to practice schedules and the like. “He talks to his players, he understands how they feel, how their bodies feel.”

But it goes without saying now that Johnson’s body feels like it has played closer to 20 years than 10, which is what it’d be if he decided to return for 2016.

Johnson broke three fingers during that record-setting 2012 season when he shattered Rice’s NFL single-season mark with 1,964 receiving yards. Two surgeries a year later could only repair some of the damage — his right ring finger still hangs at a 90-degree angle — even as he added a significant knee injury to the list. And after hobbling through most of 2014 with a high-ankle sprain, he suffered another ankle injury in Week 8 in London that never fully healed.

“Those things just don’t go away, especially if you’re playing receiver,” Johnson said, talking about his injury history back in September. “I’ve got a lot of mileage on me, I can say that. I’ve got a lot of miles on me. Over time, it takes its toll.”

Future is calling

And when I asked him how many miles he figured he had left, Johnson left the door open to walk away at any point.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’ll just take it year-by-year and see how the body feels. Definitely don’t want to do anything that’s gonna change how I’ll play with my kids when I’m older. It just depends how my body feels. You definitely think about things.”

He just preferred not to talk about most of them throughout his career, much like Sanders, who at least got to experience a playoff victory — the Lions’ lone postseason triumph since 1957 — before he walked away. And while Johnson said Sunday he felt the Lions were “real close” to being a winner next season, it’s hard to know how much he truly believes that, or how much it matters.

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What we do know is he has made more than $100 million already in his career, and he’s concerned about his future away from football. He has a 2-year-old son he wants to spend more time with, a college degree he planned to finish this spring, and a June 4 wedding date with his fiancée, Brittney McNorton. Johnson also has a charitable foundation that his family runs and he is eager to grow.

“When I think of legacy,” he said, “I think of things that I’m doing off the field more than on the field.”

And if that’s what he’s thinking about now, there’s a good chance we’ve seen the last of him in a Lions uniform. Or any uniform, for that matter.