The best pass receiver in Detroit Lions history caught footballs with dirty, crusty, bloody hands. He wore a face mask befitting an offensive tackle, and played punisher as much as he did the punished.
Lions quarterbacks threw passes and he threw blocks.
Charlie Sanders doesn’t hold any team records for pass catching. Hasn’t for years. But no one who put on the Honolulu Blue and Silver put himself through what Charlie did every Sunday, lining up at tight end for ten seasons.
He’d take on Dick Butkus, block for Mel Farr, and make a couple circus catches over the middle, or in the corner of the end zone.
Sanders—and that surname is magic when it comes to Detroit football—didn’t put up gaudy numbers. No thousand-yard seasons.
All he was, was the best tight end to ever play in Detroit. Hell, he might have been the best of his time.
And, he was the franchise’s best receiver, as previously indicated.
Style, numbers, gaudiness be damned.
Fourteen long years went by, after Charlie Sanders retired, before we were again thrilled by footballs spiraling through the air and ending up in sure hands—on a consistent basis.
Herman Moore, from Virginia, arrived in 1991 and before long, he was trying to make us forget Charlie Sanders. And Pat Studstill. And the recently passed away Terry Barr.
Moore caught passes with pillow-like hands. Lions passers couldn’t hit him in between the numbers because Moore didn’t let the ball get that far. He snared footballs. None of this clutch-to-the-chest jazz.
Herman Moore is where you go to if you’re looking for numbers of the gaudy variety. He of the 100+ receptions and 1,500-yard seasons.
But if this was basketball, Moore was a perimeter player. Charlie Sanders was banging bodies under the basket. A big man in a big man’s game.
Herman Moore hasn’t played for the Lions since 2001. And in that time, the pass catching has been handled by hacks and scrubs. And draft busts.
Only Roy Williams, a 2004 first-round pick who was last year dispatched to Dallas, proved to be somewhat competent in the receiving department in the years since Moore departed.
That’s about to change.
Calvin Johnson is a freak of a football player, in that if you put a tank top and shorts on him, you’d mistake him and his six-feet-five for a small forward in the NBA.
He’s big and runs like a deer. Gallops, is more like it. He has the hands of Herman Moore and the physicality of Charlie Sanders. He’d just as soon run over you than around you.
In the 2007 season, when the Lions were sprinting to a very un-Lions-like 6-2 start, there was a moment that made my jaw drop. I don’t even recall who the Lions opponents were. Doesn’t matter.
Johnson lined up on the outside, then at the snap of the football, he eschewed running a pass pattern. Instead, he made a wide arc, toward the Lions backfield, and took a handoff. Your basic wide receiver reverse play.
Johnson took the football and proceeded to show one of the reasons why he’s going to own Detroit someday.
The poor defenders didn’t have a chance.
Johnson picked up steam as he rounded the corner, long legs reaching full gallop, and he didn’t seem to care who or what was in his path.
The other guys were the bowling pins, and Johnson was the 22-pound ball striking the pocket at full speed.
His strides could be measured in yards, not feet. It seemed that his prance to the end zone—and this was every bit of a 40-yard run—used up as much time as it would if he was crossing his living room.
I’d never seen a receiver run a reverse like that. Ever.
Earlier that rookie season, in September in Philadelphia, Johnson made a catch that had to be seen to be believed. I will attempt to recreate it here, but its justice won’t be done.
But I’ll try anyhow.
Johnson ran a fly pattern, down the sidelines. He was some 30, 40 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Lions quarterback Jon Kitna heaved the ball toward Johnson’s general direction. Such is Johnson’s deceptive speed that he had overrun Kitna’s pass, and therefore had to turn, stop, and leap. All at once.
The ball was still high up in the air when Johnson turned, so he jumped equally as high. The momentum of the leap, combined with the fact that the football was now just beyond his head, forced his torso back while his legs stayed forward.
The result was a crash landing, but not before Johnson brought Kitna’s pass in, from over his head to a cradle near his waist.
He landed with a terrible thud, on his tailbone. From several feet off the turf.
He made the catch, which was unreal, but the landing gave him a nagging injury that would bother him all season.
But he was still able to run through everyone on that reverse play, injury and all.
A healthier Johnson, in 2008, racked up over 1,300 yards receiving on 78 catches. He caught 12 touchdown passes—all while playing for the only 0-16 team in NFL history.
There’s a fluttering feeling in the tummies of Lions fans—and players and coaches—that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of Calvin Johnson.
He could be a one-man wrecking crew for years. He’s still a baby, in football terms. More like a bulldozer outfitted with a racing car engine.
Calvin Johnson could own Detroit. He’s the most talented, most physically gifted pass receiver to come down the Lions’ pike in, well…ever.
All the Lions need now is someone to throw the ball in his general direction with some degree of consistency.
That’s been a need for half a century—the biggest caveat to Johnson’s potential as a Lion.
They’d better find someone to chuck it, because the Lions have themselves something here.