If Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson is going to play in 2016, it looks like it’ll take a change of heart.
According to ESPN, Johnson told his family 2015 would be his final year, and he told coach Jim Caldwell and two teammates the same thing after the season ended.
The report also said Caldwell told Johnson not to rush his decision, a sentiment which with general manager Bob Quinn agrees. Although the report isn’t an official announcement of Johnson’s intentions, it’s a sign of which way he was leaning when this past season drew to a close.
Johnson and his agent Bus Cook did not immediately return requests seeking comment on the ESPN report.
The Lions issued this statement on Sunday night: "Regarding today's ESPN report, we stand by our statement issued on Jan. 6 regarding Calvin."
That Jan. 6 statement read: “We obviously have profound respect for Calvin and certainly understand and appreciate his decision to give proper thought and consideration to his football future."
If Johnson does retire, he’ll be yet another once-in-a-generation talent to leave the franchise early. Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders retired in 1999, and Johnson could follow him to the Hall of Fame even if he retires after just nine seasons.
Johnson, 30, released a statement through the Lions shortly after the season ended saying he would consider his options this offseason. People close to Johnson have said health concerns are contributing to the possibility of retirement after nine mostly spectacular seasons in the NFL.
“Like many players at this stage of their career, I am currently evaluating options for my future,” Johnson said in the statement. “I would expect to have a decision regarding this matter in the not-too-distant future.”
Cook said last week he didn’t know which way his client was leaning and that the decision would come in due time. Cook also said Johnson is “tired” after another season, one in which he played through an ankle injury the second half of the year.
“He’s tired, his body’s tired,” Cook told The Detroit News after a Senior Bowl practice last week in Fairhope, Alabama. “In due time, he’ll make his decision.”
Quinn said last Wednesday he had not yet talked to Johnson, and Cook said nobody has approached him about redoing Johnson’s contract, which has a $16 million base salary and $24 million cap hit in 2016.
“There will be a time and place for me to do that,” Quinn said before a Senior Bowl practice last week. “I just have felt like in the last couple weeks wasn’t that time. He’s an iconic figure; he’s a great player.
“It’s on my to-do list; I just didn’t feel I wanted to rush into it because he still has some things that he’s trying to sort through, and I didn’t want to influence his decision one way or the other.”
The ESPN report cited anonymous sources, including one saying Johnson was “content with his decision” to retire. Johnson also told quarterback Matthew Stafford and linebacker Stephen Tulloch he planned to retire and asked them to keep it confidential, the sources in the report said. Stafford said on WJR-AM (760) that any time Johnson talks it should be taken seriously.
“I have had conversations with him. I’m going to keep those between me and him, and I respect his privacy and his time to think,” Stafford said.
Now, we’ll see how distant into the future Johnson’s decision about his future is, but Quinn said the Lions were preparing for life with or without Johnson.
“I think there’s definitely a multiple level of plans that we need to have in place, but like I said a couple weeks ago, I’m not here to rush him,” Quinn said. “I haven’t reached out to him; I haven’t talked to Bus Cook. I’m letting him do what he needs to do. I’m in no position here to ask Calvin for an answer any time soon.”
A few of Johnson’s teammates took to social media Sunday to respond to the report, including wide receiver Corey Fuller, who posted on Instagram:
“Thank you! It’s been a honor to line up aside to you, call you a teammate, a mentor, and friend ... Congratulations on a great career.. Enjoy retirement!”
Linebacker Josh Bynes also took to Instagram, posting, “Blessed to have strapped up the pads and went to war with CJ for two years!! I swear he is a better person than a football player! Humble, hard working, one of the best to play the position! Much success in future and thank you for all you gave to Detroit!”
Johnson has dealt with myriad injuries in recent years. He’s had multiple knee, ankle and finger injuries the past few years and has been a limited participant in practice through the injuries.
Still, Johnson managed to produce like a top receiver through the injuries. In 2015, he had 88 catches for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns, eclipsing 1,000 receiving yards for the sixth straight season.
“He’s still got a lot of game left, but who knows?” Cook said.
The Lions remain hopeful that Johnson will play in 2016, and they’d need to work this offseason to replace him if he doesn’t. For now, Golden Tate and TJ Jones are the only receivers with NFL experience under contract in 2016.
“A lot of kids (think about retiring) at that time of the year,” Cook said.
Now, Lions fans will have to see if Johnson truly wants to retire.