Allen Park — Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had a feeling he was playing his final game with superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson in Week 17 of last season.
Johnson had told some teammates throughout 2015 that he was considering retirement, and in what proved to be his career finale, he had 10 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Bears.
“I thought it had a chance to be (his last game), but I wasn’t 100-percent positive,” Stafford said Tuesday. “But I’m glad he had a sweet game.”
Now, for the first time in his career, Stafford will prepare to lead a team without Johnson, the best receiver in franchise history.
The Lions started their voluntary workouts this week, marking the first true team gathering since Johnson retired. The team hopes a duo of Marvin Jones — their top free-agent signing this year — and Golden Tate can headline a formidable receiving corps, but Stafford noted that Johnson is “irreplaceable with one person.” Contributions from running backs like Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, and tight ends like Eric Ebron, should help alleviate the loss, too.
As tough as it’ll be to overcome the loss of Johnson, though, Stafford sees one benefit to playing without a top-tier receiver.
“I expect that what I look at on tape will now actually be what I see on Sunday, which is quite different than it has been for the last seven years,” he said. “So, that’ll be a positive.”
To limit Johnson, teams often played defense much differently against the Lions than other teams.
Plenty of things will feel different without Johnson this year after he was the face of the franchise for most of his nine seasons. But Stafford said thinking about Johnson’s absence would distract him for the necessary work to prepare for 2016.
“It’s obviously different, but we have some new changes coming in on offense anyways as far as calls and things of that nature, just trying to really solidify what Jim Bob (Cooter) and I want to do on offense,” Stafford said. “And I’m more focused on that than anything at this point, just trying to get our guys as ready to play as we possibly can. Obviously, it’ll be different on the field on Sundays. It’s different not having him in the locker room and all that kind of stuff.
“But it’s the NFL. You get new teammates every year. Not all of them are the caliber of Calvin, there’s no question about that, but we’ve got to move on and find the way for us to be as good as we possibly can.”
Even Lions non-offensive players understand that everyone will have to help the team overcome Johnson’s absence. Safety Glover Quin said he’ll miss seeing Johnson make plays in practices and games and that it’s odd to be in Allen Park without him.
“It’s very strange,” Quin said. “Obviously a guy like Calvin, what he did and what he meant to the franchise, to the city, to the team, not having him here is different. But, that’s the life of the NFL.”
Johnson was on the receiving end of 44.7 percent of Stafford’s passing yards the past seven years. Obviously, the new-look offense will spread the ball to more players, but in last year’s season finale, the Lions sent off their former star in appropriate fashion — even if it wasn’t a planned sendoff.
“It was kind of organic how he got it,” Stafford said of Johnson’s big game in Chicago. “I wasn’t sitting there going, ‘Man, I got to force this ball to C.J.’ They were just giving us a lot of coverages that were conducive to him catching the ball, and, honestly, we call a lot of plays where he’s the No. 1 option. And they were giving us chances to get him the ball, and he made some great plays.”