Wojo: Retirement not bad outcome for Calvin, Lions

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Calvin Johnson was drafted by the Lions in the first round in 2007 and spent his entire nine-year NFL career in Detroit.

It’s too bad it ends like this, long on promise and thrills, short on fulfillment. Sadly, it’s the only ending Lions fans ever seem to get.

But when you wipe away the nostalgia, this is good for Calvin Johnson, who apparently listened to what his body told him. And frankly, it’s not a bad outcome for the Lions in their latest rebuilding chore.

Johnson pushed it as long as he could, right up until Wednesday’s start of free agency, and then he departed like he played — humbly, respectfully, without a noisy flair and just a hint of mystery. In his retirement statement Tuesday, Johnson thanked the team, the Ford family and the fans, while apologizing for not holding a news conference. After two months of contemplation — and consternation from some about the delay — Johnson did the right thing, and did it his way.

The ugly headline is, the Lions lost another great prematurely, and they’ve earned that scorn. The bottom line is, new general manager Bob Quinn gets his chance to rebuild with considerably less drama and $11 million more in cap space. And if you’re really digging for comfort, at least the franchise wasn’t blindsided like in 1999, when Barry Sanders walked away on the eve of training camp.

It’s easy to draw the Johnson-Sanders parallels because both were the rarest of athletes, remarkably gifted but understated in demeanor and demands. They didn’t say much and didn’t flaunt anything, so their sentiments and plans were mostly unknown. Sanders lasted 10 years and grew weary of the losing, but also wanted to leave with his health intact.

Possible Lions free-agent targets

Johnson’s case is different, his body breaking down after nine historically productive seasons. Being Megatron was more difficult than it looked, with injuries to his ankles, knees and fingers. Interestingly, in his 11-paragraph statement, Johnson didn’t give an official reason for his retirement. That could be an oversight, a calculation, or simply his long-standing — and admirable — refusal to blame anything on injuries.

“Let me assure you that this was not an easy or hasty decision,” Johnson said in his statement. “As I stated, I, along with those closest to me, have put a lot of time, deliberation and prayer into this decision and I truly am at peace with it.”

No Manning-like farewell

Johnson said his biggest regret was not being able to “help give our fans a championship.” Actually, that should be the everlasting regret of the Lions, who squandered two of the greatest careers in NFL history with shamefully incompetent front offices and coaching turmoil.

You’re happy any time a football player can walk away at 30 without a debilitating injury, and more and more are doing precisely that. So this is not just a Lions losing issue. But it’s also not a quirk of fate that Lions fans don’t get to follow another historic career to its appropriate conclusion. For a crushing example of what they’re missing, there was Peyton Manning one day earlier with a touching, teary farewell, barely a month after winning the Super Bowl.

The Lions didn’t win a playoff game with Johnson, and they don’t get the emotional farewell. It may be small consolation, but Johnson’s parting seemingly came without any contentiousness over bonus money, with the team announcing all contract matters were settled.

Calvin�s retirement gives Lions $11M more for 2016

As newcomers, Quinn and team president Rod Wood handled this as best they could. They didn’t publicly push, and mostly hid any impatience. You don’t want to talk a player into staying because when an athlete’s determination slips, it’s hard to get it back. And you especially don’t want to beg a player who’d account for $24 million on the 2016 salary cap.

“A harsh reality of our business is that great players like Calvin Johnson do retire, and we all understand that no one player could ever replace Calvin,” Quinn said in a statement. “But rather than dwell on that reality, we should, instead, truly appreciate what a remarkable talent we have had the privilege of watching.”

The harsh reality is, sometimes salary-cap space is as valuable as aging icons, although Johnson did have 1,214 receiving yards last season. Quinn gets $11 million more to spend and that could help a lot, if he makes the right decisions. This is on him now in a big way, to implement some version of the Patriot Way, which relies on depth more than stars.

Highs and lows

But that shouldn’t be the overriding reaction when a superstar departs, even if cold business requires it. Johnson was a six-time Pro Bowler who holds every major franchise receiving record and is a near-certain Hall of Famer, and that should be celebrated. The height was 2012, when he set an NFL record with 1,964 yards. The team’s height? Two playoff games, two losses.

Johnson was private, elusive and rarely revealing in interviews. He also was unfailingly polite, and loyal to teammates and coaches. He saw what we all saw, that he was misused at times, but he steadfastly refused to complain. If lack of vocal leadership was a fault, it was just about his only fault.

Johnson is getting married and already has a son, and I doubt he’ll have trouble finding fulfillment the rest of his life. He didn’t find all he sought with the Lions, and unfortunately, one of the lasting images will be the incredulous look on his face, and then his collapse to the turf as Aaron Rodgers completed that fateful Hail Mary to beat the Lions.

“Completing the process” wasn’t Johnson’s strength, going back to his infamous non-reception that redefined a catch. Actually, Johnson redefined a few things. He couldn’t quite complete his career the way he wished, but in sports, you don’t get to write your own script. At least he was able to dictate his own ending, as unfulfilling as it may be for some.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Lions' Calvin Johnson makes 'difficult decision' to retire

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