In this Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015 AP File Photo, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) warms ups before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field in Detroit. Johnson says NFL players could get painkillers like they were “candy” during the first half of his career with the Detroit Lions. His comments were part of a wide-ranging interview on ESPN’s news magazine E:60 that was scheduled to be broadcast Thursday, July 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski
By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer
OAKLAND–The rumors swirling around retired wide receiver Calvin Johnson wanting to return to the NFL and play for the Oakland Raiders are intriguing in so many ways that it makes my head spin.
This is nothing more than a pipe-dream, a “Megatron” pipe-dream for the Raiders.
Johnson, who retired from the Lions in his prime at age 30 after the 2015 season after an 88-catch season for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns, didn’t see Detroit as a championship contender.
Whenever I talk football with my mentor and lifelong Raiders fan Ronn Ford and the Lions come up, he always says that “Detroit will never win a championship because they can’t win outside of Wayne County.”
Detroit sits in Wayne County for those who didn’t know.
Johnson’s frustration for the Lions’ shortcomings was reminiscent of another Lions great in running back Barry Sanders, who also retired at age 30 because Detroit never could get over the hump and challenge for a Super Bowl.
During Johnson’s nine-year career in the Motor City, the Lions have only made the playoffs twice and lost both times, while Detroit was just 1-5 in six appearances in Sanders’s 10 seasons.
Johnson mentioned that the reason he retired from the Lions were a result from nagging hand, legs and ankle injuries, but honestly, Johnson knew the Lions organization couldn’t put the pieces in place to make a legitimate run at a Super Bowl. Sure Johnson had Matthew Stafford to throw him the football, but the Lions could never develop a strong running game to take the pressure off the duo and that left Detroit predictable on offense.
That happened to Sanders, who had play-making wide receivers in Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton to play off of, but saw a revolving door at quarterback with the likes Andre Ware, Erik Kramer, Scott Mitchell and Charlie Batch under center.
Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing a solid 239 pounds, Johnson was blessed with rare size and ability to make the toughest catches look so routine on any given Sunday when he was usually double- and triple-teamed.
There isn’t one signature play that stands out for me when describing Johnson, but his career numbers are insane: 731 career catches, 11,619 receiving yards and 83 touchdown catches that led to six Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro, and the cover of Madden ’13.
By all accounts, Johnson earned the respect from all of his teammates and from opponents and cemented that he was one of the NFL’s best players at any position, not just wide receiver.
But before Raider Nation gets excited about the prospect of seeing “Megatron” don the Raiders’ Silver & Black and lineup in three-wide receiver formations with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree waiting for a pinpoint pass from quarterback Derek Carr, Johnson must first reapply to the NFL and return to the Lions, who hold his rights. While as a guest at the Italian Bowl earlier this month, Johnson shed some light regarding his situation with the Lions.
“I don’t have the freedom just to go,” Johnson said. “I was stuck in my contract with Detroit and they told me they would not release my contract, so I would have to come back to them, so I didn’t see a chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time and for the work that I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep beating my head against the wall and not going anywhere. It’s the definition of insanity.”
Johnson did go on to say that he has thought about playing for other teams, but it would be up to Detroit to if they were to release Johnson should he want to return to the NFL.
Detroit recently invited Johnson to training camp this season, but there hasn’t been any word from Johnson if he would accept the invitation.
The Raiders, who are coming off a 12-4 season and their first playoff appearance since 2002, have the Super Bowl window wide open right now.
Johnson was invited to Raiders practices this offseason as a guest of new offensive coordinator Todd Downing. Downing and Johnson go back to Detroit where Downing spent five years in the organization, four of them served as the team’s quarterbacks coach.
Johnson’s situation is eerily similar to new Raiders running back and Oakland native Marshawn Lynch’s situation after he retired abruptly at age 29 from Seattle at the end of the 2015 season, a team he helped bring its first Lombardi trophy to the Pacific Northwest after the 2013 season.
The Raiders lured Lynch out of retirement but Seattle couldn’t afford and didn’t want him on the team so rather than out-right releasing Lynch and get nothing in return, the Seahawks shipped Lynch to Oakland and the sides agreed to a new deal.
Oakland and Seattle are expected to swap late-round picks in 2018 as part of the compensation in the deal for Lynch.
The deal made sense for both teams since it freed Seattle of Lynch (who allegedly rubbed some in the organization the wrong way depending on who you ask), and allowed Lynch to play for his hometown Raiders.
To acquire a player like Johnson, who can step on any football field right now and dominate with any quarterback, could cost a team a high second-round draft pick or even a late first-round pick. If I were the Lions and Johnson does want to come back and play for another team, you must hold out for the best deal possible.
Would general manager Reggie McKenzie give up those assets for Johnson, even if he turns out to be a one- to two-year rental player for Oakland?
After getting rid of eroding contracts and players that didn’t fit in the team’s future, McKenzie has drafted cornerstone players in the aforementioned Carr and Cooper, to go along with defensive end/linebacker Khalil Mack and offensive guard Gabe Jackson to have given the Raiders stability it hasn’t seen in ages.
Again, a lot of the talk of Johnson joining the Raiders is just lip service and a good conversation to have a few beers over at your favorite sports bar, but maybe its the football gods trying to re-write the history books for both franchises.
Armed with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Raiders drafted Louisiana State University quarterback JaMarcus Russell while the Lions quickly scooped up Johnson at No. 2 out of Georgia Tech.
On opening day of the 2007 season, the rookie Johnson caught four balls for 70 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown catch in Detroit’s 36-21 road victory over the Raiders.
To this day, Raider Nation has to be kicking itself as Johnson was on his way into becoming a superstar and possibly a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, while Russell would be out of the league in three years for weight issues and poor play.