The retirement of Calvin Johnson at 30 surprised many around the NFL, but it was a relief to those who tried to cover him. Three corners reflect on what made the ex-Lion one of the game’s greats. Plus reader email
In the week the NFL free market opens, the window closes for one of the great players of our time. Calvin Johnson made official Tuesday what he’d been fairly sure he’d do since Week 17 in Chicago: He retired from the NFL at 30, after nine seasons of top-level football. Of all the big, physical receivers I’ve covered, Johnson is the best one I’ve seen. That includes big-bodied Terrell Owens and Andre Johnson, and physical but wispier receivers like Randy Moss. Johnson had the speed and the power, the ability to blow past corners and win jump balls and fight for the ball between two defenders too.
Today, I’ve gathered three of those cornerbacks, men who competed against Calvin Johnson a total of 31 times. I spoke separately with former Packer Tramon Williams (14 games against Johnson), former Bear Charles Tillman (12) and ex-Packer Davon House (five). For the purposes of this virtual roundtable, I’ll intersperse their comments to the topics I fed each man.
“The football world is losing a great one,” House said. “Calvin is one of God’s masterpieces. Only three guys I’ve seen that I would say that about: Calvin, Julius Peppers and Adrian Peterson. Just so different. But with Calvin, I also think what people should know about him is what a good man he is. He played the game with such respect for everyone on the field.”
Here now is the Calvin Johnson Retirement Roundtable:
Reaction to Johnson retiring at 30
Tillman: “I’m always happy when a guy retires on his schedule. I hope he made his decision based on how he feels. This game is a grind, man. Fans don’t understand the grind. We’re not meant to play football forever. I hope he’s getting out when he wants to, and I am sure, knowing him, he is.”
Williams: “That’s the point—how much this game takes out of you. Especially Calvin, as physical a player as he was. I kind of feel for the Detroit fans, though. First Barry Sanders. Now Calvin. That’s tough.”
House: “So we’re seeing guys retire earlier now. Patrick Willis, the other linebacker for San Francisco [Chris Borland], now Calvin. … The money’s great. Calvin could have kept playing and probably made millions more. I get that. But who wants to be 50 years old with two new knees? Who wants to be 50 and you can’t sleep through the night? Get out when you’re healthy—that’s the best way.”
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A game covering Johnson was like …
House: “Covering a tight end who ran like a wide receiver, basically. The way he high-pointed the ball—catching it so high that you had no chance—was better than anyone in football, by far. One thing about him was, you couldn’t get too ‘handsy.’ You put your hands on him and try to fight him and he’ll run right through you. He’s huge. Sometimes I figured I’d just battle him ’til help arrived. That worked sometimes, but not all the time.”
Williams: “His size just made him unstoppable. And the fact he could run every route in the route tree. He can run a 9 [go route], a slant, a five-yard in-route—and every one is so technically sound. Here was the other thing about playing him that it made it such a test. You could be having a great game, maybe two catches for a few yards, but every time you line up across from him, you know he can beat you and take it for a touchdown.
“This was the amazing thing: After one game against him, Calvin comes up to me and says, ‘What do you think of our offense? What do you think we can do better?’ How am I supposed to answer that? Here’s this great player, one of the best receivers ever, asking me how he and his team can be better … I did tell him a couple of things, but come on. I’m not giving him any pointers so he can beat me!”
Tillman: “Before the snap, with a lot of guys, you can tell what route they’re going to run. With Calvin, you never knew. He’d fire off the ball, and you had to be ready for anything. I always used to think, ‘Don’t let him beat me physically.’ And in the run game, I’d always hope all those bench presses, all those curls, would help me when he came to block me to take me out of the play. He was strong. So strong. So many times I’d leave a game after he set the edge on me in the run game and say, ‘Crap! He blocked me today! I gotta do more!’”
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First time facing Johnson
Williams: “My first game against him [Thanksgiving 2007, at Detroit] was an unforgettable experience. I was in, covering him, right across from him. I’m an undrafted guy from Louisiana Tech. I watch film. I know how good he is. And when they put me in the game, I figure maybe they’d match Al Harris against him, an established player. But no, I’m out on him. They come at me right away, a five-yard in-route. I broke it up. Then on third down, I broke up another pass. I had a couple more positive plays and I remember thinking, ‘This is where I belong. This is the NFL, but it might be easier than I thought.’ Well, that was wrong, but you can imagine the confidence I had, breaking up a couple passes for Calvin Johnson.”
House: “Nerves. Just nerve-wracking. First time he ever lined up across from me, I just said to myself, ‘Don’t panic.’ But then you figure, He’s bigger than me, faster than me, stronger than me, and everybody’s going to watch me try to cover him. That is just a tough feeling. When you’re a player like me, having to fight for everything, and you’re against Calvin one-on-one, come on, you figure the pass is coming at you.”
Tillman: “From the first time we ever played , just two fierce competitors. I knew how good he was, even as a rookie. We were like Ali-Foreman, two big guys, slugging it out for four quarters. I loved it.”
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Across the board …
Tillman: “I just want to thank him for making me better.”
House: “I can close my eyes and see him run that dig and go. It’s deadly.”
Tillman: “I don’t think he gets enough credit for his character. He’s just a really good dude on the field. After he makes a big play, he’ll have a small, small celebration—never shows you up. Seems like an introvert. I wouldn’t say we’re close at all. But he is such a true professional. I really like that about him.”
Williams: “Great sportsman. Never talked noise. You make a play on him and he was always like, ‘Good play.’ He’d score on you, and he’d never throw it in your face. In my book, that counts for major, major respect. He’s the most sportsmanlike football player I ever played against.”
House: “A lotta guys talk a lot. A lotta guys. Not Calvin. I cover him, make a play, and he says to me, ‘Good job, young buck.’ That’s pretty good.”
Tillman: “Reminds me of Randy Moss downfield. His depth perception is so good. The ball’s 60 yards away, but he figures the exact right time to time his stride and his jump to get the ball at the right height. He always timed his jump perfectly.”
House: “When I was a free agent last year, the game everybody watched was our game at Detroit in 2014. I had an interception that day. My assignment was, wherever Calvin goes, I go. I was playing off coverage on an out-and-up. I didn’t bite on the [pump] fake. My eyes were on the quarterback the whole time. Calvin turned upfield, I gave him a nudge, then just ran with him. And I got the interception.”
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The definition of Calvin Johnson
Williams: “He is a created player. A perfect Madden player. He is what LeBron James is in basketball—the perfectly created basketball player—only in football.”
Now for your email...
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MANNING AND THE UNNAMED FOE
I watched the Manning retirement press conference and was almost moved to tears. I rarely rooted for Manning. I didn’t really like the Colts and I hate the Broncos. But man, was he amazing to watch. I’m blown away that in an era when Manning changed the game, more teams don’t realize and scout the mental aspect of the game more thoroughly and still get over-enamored by a quarterback’s physical characteristics.
In Manning’s comments he talked about how fun it was to play against so many memorable defenders. But as a Chargers fan I thought one name was conspicuously absent. And I get it, he named the Hall of Fame or nearly HOF caliber defenders he faced. The player I’m thinking becomes eligible for the HOF this year. He won’t get a single vote. But Stephen Cooper, the former ILB for the Chargers (’03-11), gave Manning fits. The Chargers beat Indy several times during Cooper’s four-year run as a starter (’07-10) including the OT game in San Diego that led to the OT rule change.
Thanks for a great read, Peter. It’s got to be tough knowing you won’t be able to write any longer about Manning’s actions on the field.
— Peter F., San Diego
Very good point on Stephen Cooper. I remember a couple of those games. And I will miss covering Manning. There were so many things about him that were enjoyable, and I could say the same for other really smart quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Brett Favre and Tom Brady and even some lesser-known guys like Frank Reich, who was interesting to get to know. That’s a really fun part of the job. But the process starts anew. I spent some time with Carson Wentz at the combine, and I think he is going to be an intriguing player to cover over the next several years.
WORST THING ABOUT THE SALARY CAP
The worst thing about the cap is how it sends a team’s veterans packing. Each year this is hard for the fans to swallow, it is hard for the teams to swallow and certainly it is hard for the player and their families to swallow. It seems to me that there is an easy fix for this, one that would improve the game and reward rather than punish loyalty. What I propose is this:
• Teams re-signing their own rookies receive a yearly cap relief of 10 percent of the player's salary
• 5+ continuous years earns a yearly cap relief of 25 percent of the player's salary
• 7+ continuous years earns 35 percent
• 9+ continuous years earns 50 percent
This would encourage teams to keep players they draft. It would not affect the player’s value as the teams would continue to need to re-sign them in order to receive the relief. This would also place a higher premium on a successful draft and penalize teams that draft poorly. Free agents would not be affected and continue as usual. My hope is that you take this framework, tweak it and present it!
I get what you mean Charles, and I understand how some would like to see teams be able to keep players. But there is one reality of the cap system that you are forgetting and that would make the more middle class of the owners in the NFL rebel against your idea. Let’s say with the salary cap this year at $155 million, teams are getting a lot of local pressure from media and fans to spend to the salary cap. That happens in all 32 fan bases. So, if you make it possible for teams to keep veteran players, essentially by spending on veteran players, let’s say 50 percent more given your formula, that’s going to add to the amount of money coming out of owners’ pockets. So for fans I think this would be a good idea, but owners won’t go for it because it would cost them most likely significantly more money to keep veterans.
The Bromance is clearly over the top. Peter cannot even have a story about Peyton’s retirement be about Peyton, it has to be about Tom. I am one of the readers who skips the Tom Brady Bromance section of the MMQB. I was looking forward to a great read on Peyton Manning this morning and have to skip it all because of the love Peter feels for Tom Brady. Saddened and disappointed that Peter could not let the story be about Peyton.
Gaylord, I’m sorry that this lead of the column didn’t meet your approval. I believe, however, that on the day that Larry Bird retired, most basketball writers would be trying to get an interview with Magic Johnson to see how he felt about his longtime rival and close friend retiring. Even if I had written about Tom Brady for 200 days in a row, I absolutely would have pursued him on Day 201 if that was the day Peyton Manning announced his retirement.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn may have been outraged, but the situation begs larger questions—critical for me if I am the Falcons owner and you as a reporter. Did Quinn not prepare/approve the questions that were to be asked interviewees? The MMQB just had a long article about the intensive 15-minute session that each team prepares for. Atlanta doesn’t do this?
The Falcon sinner should have his name revealed because why protect a discriminator? Many people asked the same of you and Chris Mortensen in Deflategate when agenda-driven sources used you. You protect your sources, and Quinn protects his coaches (until the name came out). You both protected probably for similar reasons. Why would you take Quinn to task when you won’t do the same of yourself?
— Don B.
I understand your point, Don. There is one difference. When I grant someone off-the-record privilege, I am not going to say his name publicly ever. Dan Quinn does not do the same thing with the people on his coaching staff. In a larger sense, it does make you wonder how much the Falcons prepare as a group for the combine interviews. And I believe there is no question that Dan Quinn will work harder in the future to make sure his coaches do not ask dumb questions.
Regarding your visit to the Tenement museum and the importance of immigrants, most people including the people you criticized will agree with you. The distinction is legal immigration versus illegal. The vast majority of people are here as a result of legal immigration by parents and grandparents who came with next to nothing and with little to no support and made something of themselves. Why should people breaking laws get preferential treatment over those who try to come here legally?
I do understand the difference between legal and illegal immigration. The larger point is that we seem in this country to have grown intolerant of immigrants from many countries. I just think we need to look at some of the great people in this country who are second- and third-generation sons and daughters of immigrants. In fact, some are first-generation offspring of immigrants. They are the backbone of this country, and sometimes I think we need a little reminder of that.
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