I Am (More Than) Robot Megatron

In the debate over whether the latest, greatest wide receiving machine is, in fact, an upgrade over the older model, judgment may very well come down to this question: what can Calvin Johnson do for Detroit in January—and when will he get the chance?
In the debate over whether the latest, greatest wide receiving machine is, in fact, an upgrade over the older model, judgment may very well come down to this question: what can Calvin Johnson do for Detroit in January—and when will he get the chance?
December 30, 2013

Before he was known as Megatron, Calvin Johnson was nicknamed Neo by his Georgia Tech teammates, who likened his gravity-defying contortions to those of Keanu Reeves's character in The Matrix. And before he was Neo? Johnson was a promising but unpolished freshman when he was schooled in 2004 by Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle, now a starter for the Giants. In a 27–3 Hurricanes romp, Rolle jammed and disrupted and erased Johnson, limiting the wide-eyed wideout to two catches for 10 yards. His blanket coverage pleased a Miami booster named Nevin Shapiro, who, according to a 2011 investigation, rewarded Rolle with a $1,000 bounty for his afternoon's work.

That experience paid more lasting dividends for Johnson, who lounged on a bench in the Lions' practice facility last week, casting his memory back to the day he got Rolled. "It made me understand that I was going to have to work harder, get stronger and improve my technique a lot if I wanted to play with the big boys."

Like a receiver coming back to the ball, he returns invariably to the subject of the work. It's not that he's not interesting. It's simply that the most interesting thing about him is his once-in-a-generation talent. He devotes much of his day, at the office and away from it, to maximizing that talent, honoring the gift. There are elliptical sessions when no one else is around, massage therapy and manipulations by his chiropractor. There is the yoga, introduced to him by former teammate Drew Stanton, whose wife is an instructor. Johnson embodies Flaubert's advice to "be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

The 19-year-old Megatron-to-be rebounded nicely after the Miami hiccup, pulling down six catches for 92 yards and a pair of TDs against Duke two weeks later. Looking on that day at Bobby Dodd Stadium was Hall of Fame wideout James Lofton, then the receivers coach for the Chargers. Lofton had heard good things about this first-year Yellow Jacket, the 6' 5" son of a Southern Pacific railway conductor, a modest kid with great hands and greater hops. Lofton watched warmups, then headed back to the Chargers' hotel. He'd seen enough. Asked by a colleague what he thought of Johnson, Lofton replied, "He's better than anyone we have right now."

That snap judgment has held up remarkably well. After averaging 4.5 catches and 70 receiving yards per game over his first four NFL seasons, Johnson has gone about redefining his position over the last three, playing it better, one could argue, than anyone in the history of the game. With the first of his six receptions in Detroit's heartbreaking 18–16 loss to the Ravens on Dec. 16, Johnson became the first player in NFL history to go over 5,000 receiving yards in the span of three seasons. His next 100-yard game will be his eighth of 2013, making him the first player in league history to have that many century-mark days in three consecutive seasons. Since the beginning of 2011, he's piled up 1,187 more receiving yards than the next-closest player, Chicago's Brandon Marshall.

Richard Sherman threw himself into his preparation before going mano a mano against Megatron for the first time last season. Yet Sherman still wasn't prepared for the shock of the matchup. "They tell you he's 6' 5" and runs a 4.3 40," says the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback. "Then you get out there, and he's faster than you think, quicker than you think. Taller and stronger than you think. You'll have three or four guys sitting on him in coverage, and [quarterback Matthew] Stafford throws it up there, and he makes the play."

Sherman won that particular head-to-head battle, limiting Johnson to three catches, but he gets why that might not always be possible: "Calvin's playing ball at a different level from anyone else."

Earlier this season, before Detroit and Dallas met in Week 8, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant gave Johnson his propers, then shared this confidence: "I believe I can do whatever he can do."

Check that. Five days later Johnson torched Dallas's secondary for 14 catches and 329 yards—second most of all time, behind Flipper Anderson's 336 in 1989—plus a touchdown in a 31–30 Lions victory. For his part, Bryant excelled in defeat, snagging a pair of touchdown passes that were overshadowed by his sideline tantrums. He played a fine game; it just wasn't ... Calvinesque.

Jerry Rice remains the best pass catcher the NFL has ever seen—few will contest that. But in his glorious 20-year pro career, Rice never had a three-season run such as the one Johnson is polishing off now. The fact is, Megatron makes catches that Rice never could for the simple reason that he doesn't need to be open to make a play. With his 45-inch vertical leap, Johnson doesn't need to create horizontal separation from defenders; he achieves it vertically.

It's not fair to judge that Rice was a product of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, says Lofton. Rice made that system, along with Joe Montana and John Taylor. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn't benefited from a cutting-edge offense. "There's no system," says Lofton, now an NFL radio analyst for Westwood One. "Everybody knows they're throwing [Johnson] the ball, and he catches it anyway."

That was especially true last season when, one by one, Detroit's secondary receiving threats all went down with injuries. "For a while there," recalls Matthew Stafford, the team's gunslinging quarterback, "he was our one and only threat. I was trying to find all kinds of different ways to get him the ball: throwing him no-look passes, moving people around—all sorts of s---. But everybody on defense knew where I was going."

None of that prevented Megatron from amassing 1,964 receiving yards in 2012, breaking by 116 yards the NFL's single-season record, set 17 years earlier by ... Jerry Rice.


Rice arrived in Honolulu for the 2003 Pro Bowl midweek, having just played for the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Preparing for his 13th and final all-star outing, he made an indelible impression on one of his AFC coaches, Jim Schwartz, then the defensive coordinator for the Titans. "Most of the guys come out for practice and their shoes aren't even laced all the way," recalls Schwartz, now the head man in Detroit. "Jerry comes out and everything is perfect on his uniform," right down to the towel he'd tucked neatly into his waistband. During a special teams session, Rice volunteered to play the role of a gunner on the punt team. "He's wearing one of those yellow helmet beanies, trying to be the best gunner ever. He practiced the way an undrafted free agent would. Calvin's the same way."

This has become a familiar refrain. Johnson's receivers coach at Georgia Tech, Buddy Geis, told SI in 2006, "God touched him in so many different ways. But Calvin works like He didn't give him anything."

You don't have to do that, Schwartz assured Johnson during a practice on Dec. 12. Making a catch at the sideline, the three-time Pro Bowler jammed his legs into the ground to get his feet in bounds, heedless of the sore right knee he's been nursing. "I know you'll get your feet in during the game," the coach told his best player. No need to take chances in practice. Johnson smiled and ignored him. Says Schwartz, "I tell him the same thing in training camp: You don't need to be diving for any balls in practice. But you can't get it out of him."

Coexisting uneasily with Johnson's rare physical gifts, according to the coach who knows him best, is this gnawing fear that he'll somehow fail to fully honor them.

"Do you want to be great?" Shawn Jefferson posed the question to Johnson shortly after the Lions took him with the second pick of the 2007 NFL draft. (Want a laugh? Go look at who went No. 1 that year.) As a wideout for four teams over 13 seasons Jefferson had caught 470 balls for more than 7,000 yards. When he became the Lions' receivers coach, he cited Bill Parcells as a primary teaching influence. Johnson had some tough love in store.

The rookie answered the question in the affirmative, and Jefferson asked again, "Do you want to be great?"

"Yeah, I want to be great."

"O.K., then here's the deal: On days you don't feel like being great, I'm gonna coach you like you want to be great."

Jefferson was promising to push him as he'd never been pushed before. It was exactly what Johnson wanted to hear. They started with his footwork.

"Everybody in the league knows you can run," Jefferson told his pupil, who'd blazed a 4.35-second 40 at the NFL combine. "But after a while they're gonna jump in your face and say, Hey kid, can you beat me on a comeback route? Can you beat me with a curl?" In college Johnson had gotten away with rounding off his patterns, wasting steps coming out of his cuts. Jefferson piled on the footwork: cone drills, garbage can drills, ladder drills. When that got stale, he'd roll out soccer balls for the receivers to dribble around.

Even then, just getting off the line of scrimmage was an adventure. Johnson's release against press coverage, for example, needed work. To present corners with the smallest possible target, he learned to stay extremely low coming off the line. Jefferson helped by fashioning what he called the Arch, a waist-high piece of PVC piping that Johnson had to pass under as he came out of his stance.

The rookie devoured the work. "He was relentless," says Jefferson, who held Johnson to a nearly unattainable standard. "Sometimes he'd run a really good route," Jefferson admits, "and we'd watch it on video, and I'd say, 'Hey, this isn't good enough.' "

But it was still very good. Johnson's 1,331 receiving yards and dozen touchdowns in 2008 provided a slender silver lining in the Lions' disastrous 0--16 season. Head coach Rod Marinelli was fired; Jefferson was one of six assistants retained by Schwartz.

Through the regime change, Jefferson never let his pupil get comfortable. "It was unfair, some of the things we asked of him, but it was good for his growth," says the assistant, who now teaches the same position with the Titans. Jefferson recalls in particular Detroit's 2009 Thanksgiving Day matchup against the Packers, which Johnson entered with a bum knee. Johnson scored the game's first TD but was mostly a nonfactor after that, allowing himself to be blanketed by Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, who snagged a pair of interceptions in the process. The moment the receiver walked into his position meeting the following Monday, he reaped the whirlwind. Jefferson believed that Johnson had been "outcompeted" by Woodson; that he'd felt sorry for himself and given less than his best. He unloaded on the third-year player, shouting that he'd been "f------ embarrassed" by Johnson's effort; that if he was ever going to realize his potential, he was going to have to "push through" some pain.

Throughout his philippic, Jefferson recalls, "I was shaking in my boots, thinking, This guy's gonna kick my a--. I think the reason he didn't hit me is because he knew I was telling the truth. He didn't compete at his best level."

Johnson absorbed the tirade in silence, accepted it, took it as a challenge. Thereafter, he was more willing to play hard through nagging injuries, such as that right knee, as well as various foot ailments and three broken fingers in 2012. After missing eight starts in his first three years as a pro, he's missed just two in the subsequent four seasons. And he's been far more resilient upstairs than in the early portion of his career. That mental toughness manifests itself every week in an unwillingness to make excuses for not producing, even when he's double- and triple-teamed, notes Detroit's offensive coordinator Scott Linehan—"when teams are basically putting all their assets into taking him away."

"Just gotta figure out a way," says Johnson. "We've got so many plays, so many ways to attack. They can't account for everything."

They can't account for a creature purpose-built, apparently, to outrun, outjump and outwit them. Throughout his career Johnson has left a trail of aggrieved defensive backs—supremely gifted athletes in their own right—who have shared this in common: they had textbook coverage, right up until the moment that those oversized hands enveloped the ball.

"Scottie Pippen and those guys talk about how there would be moments out on the court when they'd just stop playing and watch Michael Jordan," says Lions left guard Rob Sims. "We do that with Calvin. I've seen some amazing things with my own eyes."

Asking teammates for a favorite Megatron moment is like asking them to choose their favorite child. "Everybody knows the Dallas one and the Cincinnati one," says Stafford, referring to a pair of passes flung into triple coverage—24 and 50 yards against the Boys, in 2011, and the Bengals, in October, respectively—but converted by the levitating number 81 into outrageous TD grabs.

But the QB is partial to a less celebrated, more sublime catch-and-stun. With Johnson running a seven route—a flag pattern—late in the fourth quarter against the Panthers two years ago, Stafford spotted a safety "cutting across the top" and threw the ball high. To many, it looked like a throwaway. Twisting and elevating at the same time, Johnson made a 30-yard catch to set up Detroit's game-winning touchdown. "What I loved about it," says Stafford, "is that he made it look so easy, when probably nobody else in the league even jumps for it."

Forgive Rod Woodson if he feels compelled to pump the brakes, to bring some perspective and history to this Calvin love-in. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, Woodson picked off 71 passes in his 17 NFL seasons, third most in league history. He played for four teams and was twice a teammate of Jerry Rice, who, Woodson points out, had a rougher go of it than any of today's cosseted skill-position players.

"When Jerry was coming through the ranks, defensive backs could bang [receivers] around. They could hit him every which way but loose."

In the first 75 years of pro football only one QB threw for 5,000 yards in a single season: Dan Marino in 1984. "In the last four years, it's happened four times," Woodson points out. "Not to take anything away from Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but when Marino did it, it was so much harder.

In those days, when QBs were fair game, "You could hit 'em high, low, wherever; you could pile-drive them," says Woodson. It was basically open season on receivers as well. Recall Raiders safety George Atkinson coming from behind Lynn Swann and clubbing the balletic Steelers wideout in the back of the neck in 1976. Swann collapsed with a serious concussion—the second Atkinson-inflicted knockout he'd incurred in a stretch of three games. Neither assault so much as drew a flag.

"Nowadays, you've gotta move out of the way for receivers," notes Woodson, sounding slightly forlorn. "And if you do touch 'em, a flag's gonna be thrown, maybe you're gonna get fined. If you're a repeat offender, you're gonna get suspended."

With the rules stacked in their favor, this generation of mama's boy wideouts—to hear some traditionalists tell it—are playing a significantly different version of the same game. The stats piled up by Megatron are apples; the numbers of Swann and Rice and Lance Alworth are oranges. Says Woodson, "I think we have to reevaluate how we evaluate."

That said, he goes on, Calvin Johnson is a freak now, and would be a freak in any era. "A guy that big, with that skill set," allows Woodson, "you just don't see it."

If Megatron's footwork in and out of his cuts is not as crisp as was that of, say, Raymond Berry, the obsessively prepared, fanatically precise Baltimore Colt and favorite target of Johnny Unitas, that's not necessarily a problem—according to ... Raymond Berry.

After his 13-year playing career ended, Berry signed on as an assistant coach with the Cowboys, whose roster included wide receiver Bob Hayes, an Olympic sprinting champion and coholder of the 100-meter world record. "I had every move known to man," recalls Berry of the arsenal of fakes and feints he employed to shake defenders. "Do you know what Bob Hayes had to do to get open?" Pause. "He left the line of scrimmage.

"I mean, if you have a choice, that's the way to go."

Asked, then, to judge Johnson, the 80-year-old Berry blurts, "Good grief!" and proceeds: "I've watched a lot of great receivers over the years. That guy is off the charts, an absolute physical phenomenon."

Berry celebrates Megatron but doesn't rank him, doesn't try to fix him in the NFL firmament. That debate can't properly begin until Johnson is out of the league, he says. As Woodson notes, that reckoning will be influenced, heavily, by Detroit's ability (or inability) to win consistently, to qualify for the postseason and do some damage when it gets there. Otherwise, Johnson will find himself in the frustrated fraternity of star players—think Earl Campbell, Anthony Mu√±oz, Cris Carter, Tony Gonzalez and Megatron's fellow Lion, Barry Sanders—whose greatness was largely limited to the regular season.

With the first pick of the 2007 NFL draft the Raiders took JaMarcus Russell. (Told you you'd laugh.) The Lions, delighted, jumped on Johnson. Yet there were misgivings in the Motor City. Starting in '03, Detroit had squandered three straight top 10 picks on Charles Rodgers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. Of that trio of underperforming receivers, only Roy Williams made even a remotely significant contribution, although his most lasting legacy to the Lions is this: He's the guy who came up with the nickname Megatron.

"That was the year Transformers came out in theaters, in 2007," recalls Johnson, whose decision to enter the draft as a junior, by that logic, may have prevented him from being nicknamed Kung Fu Panda. "The name didn't really stick for a couple years. And then it did."

It was a serendipitous handle on several levels. Megatron has giant hands, as does Johnson. "Transformer" denotes adaptability, a trait Johnson exhibited as defensive coordinators began their game planning with the question, How do we stop 81?

Schwartz was the coordinator for the Titans' defense in 2008 when, like every other Lions opponent that season, Tennessee beat Detroit. "It was Calvin's second year in the league," recounts Schwartz, "and there wasn't a snap in that game where we weren't over and under on him. We had Cover Two calls going to him, trap blitzes going to him. The difference was that back then he played one position, the Z [also known as the flanker, who usually lines up alongside the tight end], so it was easy to zero in on him."

Hired by the Lions after that season, Schwartz imported Linehan, who challenged opposing D's by moving Megatron around, from the Z to the X (the split end, who is tethered to the line of scrimmage, ergo more susceptible to being jammed by a corner) to tight end, to the slot, even though that last spot is normally the realm of shorter, shiftier athletes.

"A lot of big guys can't make that transition" to the more-crowded middle of the field, says Lions wideout Nate Burleson. "But Calvin is able to condense himself, get low, make himself smaller, to play that Wes Welker position." Of course he is. The man is a Transformer, after all.

Where this once felt alien and uncomfortable—"at first, I was a little iffy about it," he says—Johnson is now at home in the slot. Unlike typical slot guys, who run quick-hitting slants and so-called "now" routes, Megatron tends to run intermediate routes from that inside position, finding vertical seams and then cutting left or right, depending on where the space develops, as it almost always does. "Just gotta be patient," says Johnson.

The much taller order, it turns out, is transforming this team into a consistent winner. After storming to a two-game lead in the NFC North at midseason, the Lions had sunk to third place entering Week 15, behind the Bears and the Packers. With his team scrapping for its postseason life days before the Ravens tore Detroit's heart out on Monday Night Football, Johnson's thoughts couldn't have been further from where his name might fall on the list of the greatest receivers in NFL history.

Asked if he spends much time reflecting on what his legacy might be, he shakes his head. "I'm more of a day-to-day guy. There are so many little things to do now."

Stay ready, Shawn Jefferson often instructed him, so you don't have to get ready.

The best ever? "Right now, it's Jerry Rice," says Jefferson. "But let's talk again after Calvin retires. I'm just telling you, I know how that conversation's going to go."