Somehow, a 6-foot-5 man named "Megatron," has been overlooked.
The NFL buzzed over Dez Bryant and whether he went heel in his sideline rant at the end of the Cowboys' last-second loss to Detroit. The discussion that should be launched next is about Calvin Johnson, and whether he deserves a place in the MVP discussion alongside Peyton Manning.
Johnson's 329-yard performance Sunday was better than buzzy: it was historic. Only one other player in NFL history, Flipper Anderson, has amassed more receiving yards in a single game than Johnson did on Sunday. Only three other receivers have gained more than 300 yards in a game, and you probably haven't heard of any of them (Stephone Paige, Jim Benton, Cloyce Box).
No offense to Matt Stafford and his gutsy decision, but Johnson won the game for the Lions. Detroit has scored at least 21 points in every game this season except one: when the Lions scored 9 in Green Bay in the only game Johnson didn't play. If that isn't "most valuable," nothing is. Johnson has more yards receiving in seven games (821) than the Lions have rushing in eight (785). Johnson's 329 yards on Sunday was only six fewer than the Lions' second-leading receiver (Reggie Bush) has all year.
Obviously, Manning makes the Denver Broncos who they are as well. He's the leading candidate for this award, and he'll likely win it unless Denver falls apart down the stretch. Still, the fact that a player who doesn't touch the ball on every play is worthy of this conversation is an incredible testament to Johnson's ability.
In the Super Bowl era, only one receiver has won the MVP: Jerry Rice in 1987. Even then, John Elway won the AP award and Rice won the Pro Football Writers Association title. In only 12 games that season (because of a strike), Rice caught 22 touchdowns. The next-leading touchdown total among wideouts went to Mike Quick, with 11. That's the kind of extraordinary statistical season needed to win MVP as a receiver.
Johnson is that extraordinary.
He broke Rice's single-season yardage record (now 1,964) and tied Michael Irvin's single-season 100-yard games record (11) last season, but didn't get MVP consideration because the Lions were so bad. This year, the Lions are 5-3 with a shot at the playoffs, and Johnson has two more touchdowns in seven games (7) than he had all of last season. He's averaging 117.3 yards per game, which is in the neighborhood of Adrian Peterson's MVP-worthy 131.1 yards per game average last season. That's no aberration: Johnson is closing in on his third-straight 100 yards-per-game season. Detroit has a 100-yard gainer without a single rushing attempt.
Aside from the statistics, Johnson has a crucial similarity to Manning: he makes everyone wonder how to defend him. Manning's throws are so quick and precise that earlier in the season, the New York Giants' Justin Tuck admitted it becomes hard to continue to rush at him after every snap. Johnson is just as maddening: he's taller than every defender, stronger than every defensive back, able to jump higher than every cornerback, and unbelievably fast for someone his size. Other receivers need a perfect throw or a perfect route. Johnson just needs a ball in the air. There may be a game plan for Manning, but even triple-teams don't seem to stop Johnson. His only Achilles heel is his sore knee.
One of Johnson's greatest gifts might actually hinder his MVP case, though. He is quiet. He doesn't like interviews, he rarely celebrates touchdowns, and he never calls attention to himself. While Manning sings in his satellite television commercials, Johnson is shown working out while Sean Combs speaks in one ad and getting dressed in another. Johnson is the son of a train conductor who taught him the value of earning a day's pay, and he clearly doesn't prefer star treatment. Johnson is, in a way, similar to Detroit's other MVP candidate, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera: the excellence is so constant and machine-like that it's numbing. Cabrera has made some of the wrong headlines and Johnson has made only positive news, but on the field they are each alone in parallel stratospheres. The only flash is on the scoreboard.
The Lions have to make the playoffs for Johnson to be a legitimate MVP threat – especially considering only one other receiver has won the award in the modern era – but the stats are there, the value is there, and the dominance is there.
Perhaps most important, the common sense is there. If you have seen Johnson play, on TV or in person, you know there's no one else quite like him: at his position, in the league, and maybe ever.
The conventional wisdom has Manning winning MVP this season. That's understandable. Yet if you look at what the Lions are with Calvin Johnson and what they are without him, Manning might have company in this debate.