That shudder you hear in the Mitten State, and Lions nation everywhere, is the suddenly real prospect that wide receiver Calvin Johnson could walk away and retire rather than keep playing.
Johnson, the franchise’s all-time leader in pretty much every receiving category and leader in most by a significant margin, brought it up in a brief prepared statement (which I copied here from social media).
Is this Barry Sanders all over again? Could Megatron really walk away at age 30 with seemingly so much left to offer?
Let’s look at where Calvin is at with the team…
He has played nine seasons in Detroit, starting right away as the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. He thrived through a litany of poor quarterbacking before Matthews Stafford arrived after the winless 2008 campaign. Injuries have slowed him down in recent times. He’s missed games with ankle and back issues, and his fingers are noticeably swollen and disfigured. He almost never practices anymore. He walks with a slower, more deliberate gait than he did as a 28-year-old.
Financially, Johnson has earned over $100 million already. His rookie deal paid him $55.5 million over six years, but he signed his second deal after 2011 (his fifth season) which pays him $113.5 million over seven years. He’s collected the bulk of that already, including a $20 million option bonus, another $4.25 million as part of a restructure in 2013 and a $4.5 million roster bonus in 2013 (h/t Spotrac). He is due just under $16 million in salary in 2016, a year which also represents the end of the salary cap impact of his numerous bonuses.
Per former agent Joel Corry, the Lions can get back a little of the money if Johnson does in fact retire,
The last bit there alludes to when Barry Sanders blindsided the franchise by retiring just before the 2000 season. The Lions aggressively went after his signing bonus, ultimately recouping $1.8 million of the $5.5 million they sought.
It is easy to draw parallels with Sanders. The team had not performed as well as expected, either internally or nationally, and a coach who changed Sanders’ role to some extent helped make the decision for him. The Lions are currently in limbo with no permanent GM and with Jim Caldwell tenuously holding on as head coach. Johnson’s role noticeably diminished down the stretch in 2015 after Jim Bob Cooter took over the Offensive Coordinator role, though he did have a strong finale in Chicago with 10 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown.
There has been talk regarding a potential trade, or a restructure of Johnson’s contract. What Johnson’s fairly vague statement today indicates to me is that he is not interested in either of those scenarios. By playing the “I might retire” card, he has effectively killed any potential trade talks. He’s also, perhaps unwittingly, soured the Lions from considering a restructure. Pushing more of his salary and cap hit further into the future makes zero sense if he’s going to retire sooner than later. That’s a definite positive for the team, by the way; it’s those very restructurings in the past that have led to the cap misery and are no small part of why Ndamukong Suh isn’t in Detroit anymore.
My gut tells me Calvin is going to play one more year. But I’ve talked with a couple of connections who know Calvin pretty well and they have both intimated he’s quite serious about calling it a career. He’s tired of the health issues, worried about his post-football life and has made enough money to satisfy his needs. One of these connections told me weeks ago that it wouldn’t surprise him if Johnson was playing his final season in Detroit already. That source just moved up my credibility meter.
The Lions are in a tough spot here. With no GM in place, it’s hard to sell Johnson on coming back to a bright future in Detroit. The uncertainty of the franchise management, and perhaps the coaching situation, sure make it seem easier for Johnson–a pensive, private man–to say enough is enough.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but prepare for it to be a potential reality.