I spent the Saturday evening before Christmas on the sidelines at Ford Field in Detroit, working on the Dial Global radio broadcast of the game between the Falcons and Lions. I knew going into the game that Lions WR Calvin Johnson was 182 yards short of Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season, and most of us involved in the broadcast expected Johnson would get at least halfway there and set himself up to break the record in the final game of the season.
But when Johnson finished the first half with six receptions for 117 yards, leaving him just 65 yards shy of the record and with the Lions trailing by 15, it was clear he would at least challenge the record before the night was out.
Johnson entered the final quarter needing just four yards to break the record, and with 3:05 remaining, he made history, taking a short toss across the middle and turning upfield for a 26-yard gain. He finished the game with 11 catches for 225 yards, and the NFL’s single-season record for receiving yards now belongs to Johnson with 1,892 yards and one full game to play.
Many have forgotten that, after the Lions beat the Seahawks 28-24 in their seventh game of the season, much of the talk surrounding the club was about what was up with Johnson, who was held to three catches for 46 yards in that game, one week after being held to three receptions for 34 yards by Chicago.
At that point in the season, Johnson had 41 catches for 638 yards and only one TD. In 2011, Johnson had 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 TDs, and while he only had 41 grabs for 679 yards through seven weeks, he also had 10 TDs. Johnson has just five TDs in ’12, but over his last eight games, he has had at least 100 receiving yards in each, an NFL record. During that span, he has totaled 76 receptions for 1,254 yards, an average of 9.5 catches and 156.8 yards per game, despite the fact the Lions’ third, fourth and fifth most productive wideouts — Titus Young, Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, respectively — have all been placed on injured reserve, and their second-most productive pass catcher, TE Brandon Pettigrew, has missed the last 2½ games.
What is most remarkable about Johnson is that, at 6-5, 236 pounds, he is at times one of the biggest players on the field, yet is still usually the most athletic and one of the fastest players in the game. In addition to now being the greatest wide receiver for a single season in the history of the game, Johnson and Texans WR Andre Johnson (no relation), who just reached 100 receptions in a season for the fourth time in his career, seem to have redefined the WR position in the NFL.
Through 15 games of the 2012 season, the top 11 wideouts in the league in yardage include the two Johnsons, Brandon Marshall, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson, Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green, Wes Welker, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant.
Only the diminutive Welker (5-9, 185 pounds), White (6-0, 211), Wayne (6-0, 198) and Bryant (6-2, 220) are shorter than 6-foot-3. Jackson (6-5, 230 pounds) is almost as big as Calvin Johnson; Marshall is 6-4, 230; Green is 6-4, 207; Thomas is 6-3, 229; Andre Johnson is 6-3, 226; and Jones is 6-3, 220. Every one of these players appear capable of making a Hall of Fame argument at the end of their careers.
There are currently 21 modern-era wideouts in the Hall. Only nine are 6-foot-2 or taller: Art Monk (6-3, 210); Charley Taylor (6-3, 210); James Lofton (6-3, 192); Tom Fears (6-2, 216); Michael Irvin (6-2, 207); Rice (6-2, 200); Raymond Berry (6-2, 187); Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (6-2, 190); and John Stallworth (6-2, 191).
For all the talk about the proliferation of 300-pound linemen in the game today as compared to 30-35 years ago, no position in pro football has been as radically altered physically as the WR spot has been in just the last 5-8 seasons.
As young as the current group is, it appears the position will never be the same. But none of the new breed of receivers is in Calvin Johnson’s class, as he currently leads his closest pursuer this season — Marshall — by more than 400 yards. Next week, he might push his new record so far out of reach it will never be broken.