Wednesday October 24th, 2007

With 6 minutes and 38 seconds left in Sunday's game between the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Calvin Johnson had been a bit of a disappointment.

He had not caught more than four passes in a game. He had not finished with more than 70 yards in a game. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson was cruising to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Johnson was struggling just to crack the Lions' starting lineup.

But with Detroit ahead by nine points and the clock ticking in the fourth quarter, Johnson showed why the Lions drafted him second overall last spring and why numerous talent evaluators hailed him as one of the best receivers ever to come out of college. Remarkably, he didn't even need to catch a ball. He just needed to get his hands on it.

Lined up left, Johnson went in motion at the Bucs' 32. Quarterback Jon Kitna handed him the ball. That's when the highlight reel started to roll. Johnson cut up field, stiff-arming linebacker Cato June. Then he stutter stepped on the sideline, shaking safety Tanard Jackson. Finally, he spun away from linebacker Barrett Ruud.

As Jackson pirouetted into the end zone, Jon Gruden gritted his teeth on the sideline. Gruden, the Bucs' head coach, had desperately wanted to trade up and draft Johnson first overall. Here was his rationale come to life. "He's a rare guy," Gruden said.

It is not uncommon to see a receiver juke a linebacker. But it is eye-popping to see a receiver juke one linebacker and stiff arm another. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Johnson is a unique cocktail of physical talent -- too strong to arm tackle, too fast to catch.

"Not many people make that play," Kitna said. "He stiff-armed one of the better linebackers in this league and then made a guy miss and then carried the leading tackler in the NFL into the end zone. What else do you need to say? That's why he is who he is."

In other words, that's why he's Megatron. Roy Williams, the Lions' other star receiver, gave Johnson the nickname after seeing the movie Transformers. Williams believed that Johnson looked like a super hero, even if he wasn't playing like one.

Johnson started this season with touchdown receptions in his first two games. Then he injured his lower back, forcing him to miss one game and struggle in another. It just so happened that Peterson took off right after Johnson went down. Because they are both top-10 picks who play in the same division, the rookies are easy to compare.

So far, Johnson has not stacked up. Even Sunday, he finished with only two receptions for 37 yards. But that one end-around -- combined with a nifty diving catch on the play before it -- prompted hope that the Lions did indeed draft the right guy.

The cheers that went up at Ford Field sounded like giant sighs of relief. The Lions have been burned by first-round receivers before. Charles Rogers, the second overall pick out of Michigan State in 2003, was a colossal disappointment; Mike Williams, the tenth pick out of USC in 2005, was arguably worse. Both of them are already gone.

But Johnson was supposed to be different. When he left Georgia Tech, he was billed as a bonus baby who was willing to work. Unlike so many elite receivers, Johnson is more diplomat than diva. He never demands the ball, at least not when he's on camera.

After his touchdown run Sunday against the Buccaneers, Johnson was asked what linebacker he shoved out of his way. "I know who I stiff-armed," Johnson said. "But I don't want to put him out there like that." He paused for a moment. "OK, it was Cato June. But this stuff could be on TV. I don't want it like I'm bragging."

He needs Roy Williams to gloat for him. "Megatron is a different athlete," Williams said. "He's a little bit faster than me. He's bigger than me. I put him in the same boat with me. People were getting on him the first couple of weeks. People were getting impatient with him. But he makes it work, man. He's that piece we're missing."

Usually, the Lions are missing more than just one piece. After all, they have one playoff victory in the past 50 years. But Kitna is a willful leader and Kevin Jones a reliable running back. At 4-2, they are a surprise contender in the suspect NFC North.

Still, to make Mike Martz's offense really hum, the Lions need a plethora of big-play receivers. Williams is obviously one. Johnson has to be the other. The Lions did not draft him to run end-arounds. They drafted him to be one of the league's elite receivers.

"I'm definitely getting comfortable," Johnson said. "I feel I'm doing what I have to do to help this team. Everybody here, all the playmakers, are itching to show what they can do. We've done that somewhat. We just have to keep on being able to do it."

The first time Johnson watched Transformers, he thought Megatron was one of the good guys, the Autobots. But when he bought the DVD recently and watched it again, he was startled to learn that Megatron is actually the commander of the villainous Decepticons. The character is known for his ruthlessness and his cunning.

Johnson has never played this kind of part. But in Detroit, a transformation may be underway.

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