It's safe to say that the 2009 Detroit Lions may have been the happiest 2-14 team in NFL history. After the seven-year tenure of former GM Matt Millen led to the worst record in such a span in NFL history, and the 2008 team became the first in league annals to put up an 0-16 record in one season, Millen was finally shown the door and a new regime put in place. One of the prime beneficiaries of the franchise's new look is receiver Calvin Johnson(notes), who has developed into one of the NFL's best at his position since Millen got it right and took Johnson with the second pick in the 2007 draft.
Johnson has transcended his surroundings through his first three seasons, which makes one wonder what he'd be capable of if the Lions put a competent offense around him. Such moves have gained traction over the last two seasons, as new GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have added key free agents to two consecutive high-quality drafts. The team's still far away from competing in what will be a brutally competitive NFC North division, but Johnson sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and that was obvious when I talked to him after a Nike photo shoot on Wednesday.
The shoe manufacturer closed off a street in an industrial section near downtown Portland, and five NFL players (Johnson, Troy Polamalu(notes), Steve Breaston(notes), Chris Johnson, and DeSean Jackson(notes)) endured weather which did not cooperate (95-degree heat) in leather motorcycle suits for the shoot. Johnson was a good sport, though he told me that he would prefer a chopper if he had a bike. "It's been going pretty good," Johnson said of the shoot. "We're not done quite yet - I think we have one more time on the bikes. Cool little bikes with a nice fit, but I'm not messing with bikes right now."
A better fit has been the Lions' new front office. "Last year, the big change was mostly with the coaching staff," Johnson said. "We had a lot of new faces, but some of the same people who were there before. I'm not saying there's anything bad about that, but from last year's 2-14 team to now, there's been a tremendous change in terms of size and speed, and even having more veterans on the team."
The Lions added former Seattle receiver Nate Burleson(notes) and ex-Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) to a young team with future stars like quarterback Matt Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew(notes), and safety Louis Delmas(notes). From the 2010 draft, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) and running back Jahvid Best(notes) are two who will look to make immediate impacts. "Things feel really good," Johnson told me when I asked about all the new faces in offseason workouts. "I had a full offseason to work with Matt - not just me, but all the receivers and the entire offense. Everyone's more comfortable with Matt, he's really taken the reins, and we're looking forward to the new season."
Of course, Stafford's NFL claim to fame was the Week 11 game against the Cleveland Browns when he threw a last-second touchdown pass to for a 38-37 victory despite suffering a separated shoulder on the previous play. Common perception was that this event had the veterans buying in to the rookie as the face of the offense, but Johnson said that Stafford had already taken those steps.
"We were like that already; it didn't take that for us to believe in him. He's our quarterback, and he's a natural leader. So, we have to follow him, and we have to believe that he can get the job done. That's what he's there to do. [The Cleveland game] just helped cement that."
Johnson isn't just in Portland to promote a new shoe; he's also going to participate in Nike's 7ON tournament, which brings some of the nation's best high-school players together, by advising and interacting with the young players. I asked him about his own high-school days at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia. "Those days were good; it was all about camaraderie," he said. "It still is, but you hung out with those guys day in and day out because you were in school together and you played most sports together. We did have some 7-on-7 tournaments at the high school level - not to this level, where they're coming out to Portland and competing against other elite schools. We didn't have that chance, but we did have some 7-on-7s with a couple of schools around our area."
Johnson was heavily recruited out of high school, making just about every top 10 list possible, but he "made it known that I wanted to stay in the South and close to home (Atlanta), I was able to choose between Georgia and Georgia Tech, and I chose Georgia Tech."
Of course, any young receiver would love to hear what Calvin Johnson has to say. What would he like to impart on the next generation of football players as they climb the ladder, and how do they go from high school to college to the pros without falling back and making mistakes?
"First, you have to have thick skin, because everything's not going to go your way. There are times when it's going to be rough, but you have to be able to bounce back. You have to perform at a high level after you bounce back - if you have a bad game or whatever it may be. More than anything, just do the best that you can do. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, trying to model yourself on what somebody else is doing instead of being the best that you can be."
With 193 receptions for 3,071 yards and 21 touchdowns in three years for a franchise that has gone 9-39 during his NFL career, Calvin Johnson knows all about being the best he can be - no matter the circumstances.
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