Boca Raton, Fla. — Right after last season ended, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson told coach Jim Caldwell he was considering retirement.
Caldwell didn’t try to influence Johnson’s decision. Instead, they spoke about the pros and cons of retirement, and Caldwell asked Johnson to take some time to weigh his options.
About three months later, Johnson announced his retirement after nine seasons, leaving the Lions without the player who had been the face of their franchise most of his career.
“The most important thing is I think that he was certainly comfortable with his decision,” Caldwell said during an NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL annual meetings Wednesday. “He did the best thing for him, and I think that’s all that counts.”
Speaking for the first time since the day after the season ended, Caldwell said he spoke with Johnson multiple times the past few months. And when Johnson made his decision, he again spoke with Caldwell.
Caldwell, however, declined to share the intimate details.
“Those things are private; those things are emotional,” he said. “Those are special moments because the great thing about football is that you develop really good relationships, and it’s not very often that you’re involved with guys (like him).”
Johnson’s football career is over. His former teammate, wide receiver Nate Burleson, wrote on NFL.com — seemingly in jest — that Johnson should take the year off, join the Patriots and get the Super Bowl ring he deserves.
Lions president Rod Wood said such an idea is extremely unlikely as much as some people around the NFL want to see more of Johnson.
“If he did want to play for another team and come back?” Wood said. “Well, first of all I’d be very surprised. And if he wanted to do that, that’s something he would have to discuss with us, but I’m not expecting it.”
The Lions still own Johnson’s rights if he does have second thoughts, so they would have to agree to anything that leads to him playing elsewhere.
As for the process of Johnson’s retirement, Wood said he didn’t ask for a reason. Although Wood said team officials didn’t require a decision before free agency began March 9, he believes Johnson announced his decision March 8 as one last attempt to help the team.
“He handled his retirement just like he handled his playing career, with class and with dignity and as a team player,” Wood said.
Caldwell has been around other similar talents. He spoke about the career of former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who will be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. He also coached quarterback Peyton Manning, who surely will be elected to the Hall of Fame in five years, and Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, among others.
But as he reflected on Johnson, Caldwell recalled something he read recently from an Asian philosopher.
“He said humility has to be the foundation of anything that you do if you want to involve greatness and says the higher you climb, the deeper your foundation of humility has to be,” Caldwell said. “Well, Calvin was maybe one of the most humble superstars that I’ve ever been around — just a tremendous guy. He’ll be missed in more ways than just the fact that he’s able to run by people, jump over the top of people and catch touchdown passes.”
And, Johnson did a lot of those three things during his career. In nine seasons, Johnson ...
■Eclipsed 1,000 yards seven times, including 1,214 his final season;
■Set an NFL record for receiving yards in a season with 1,964 in 2012; and
■Became the first wide to be a first-team All-Pro in three consecutive seasons (2011-13) since Terrell Owens (2000-02).
When Caldwell was hired, he envisioned Johnson being a part of his future beyond two years, but said things like early retirement or injuries constantly affect teams.
“Our job is volatile, it’s unpredictable, it’s complex and it’s forever changing, and you have to be able to adapt,” Caldwell said. “In coaching, you just have to find another way to win.”
Caldwell, like others, also said it’d be wrong to draw parallels between Johnson and new Lions receiver Marvin Jones.
But, after a few months wondering if Johnson might change his mind and come back, the Lions must move on.
“It wasn’t something that was done overnight,” Caldwell said. “He gave it serious thought. He weighed out all of his options. He talked to family members, agent, you name it. He did a thorough examination, and most importantly, he did a thorough examination of himself.”