Bring on Megatron? I’m not even sure Calvin Johnson is the first (possibly) early-retiring Lions superstar who should be coveted by the Patriots — or more specifically, their fans. Barry Sanders is 47 years old, hasn’t taken a handoff with serious intent since 1998, and probably doesn’t have much more wiggle than Steven Jackson these days. And yet I’m relatively confident he could have surpassed Tom Brady’s team-high total of 13 rushing yards against the Broncos last Sunday.
But here we are, a full year after the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX in as fulfilling a way as possible and little more than a week after the retribution-fueled quest for a repeat thudded to an end with a 20-18 loss to those Broncos, and we’re already on to one of our annual favorite offseason obsessions around here: Searching for a deep threat for Tom Brady.
We’ve played this game ever since … well, if it doesn’t quite go back to the day in July 1990 when Stanley Morgan joined the Colts then Let’s Get A Field-Stretcher! has certainly been a recurring parlor game around here since, oh, a checked-out Randy Moss was traded four games into the 2010 season. Moss showed us what a deep threat could do for the Patriots’ offense with an all-timer of a season in 2007 (23 touchdowns, and imagine how the perception of him might have changed had his go-ahead TD catch in the Super Bowl held up).
It’s kind of amazing that the Patriots, briefly, had Moss, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Aaron Hernandez on the roster at the same time. What an array of pass-catching talent, albeit at different phases of their careers. In the years since, Gronk and Edelman have become an accomplished and potent 1-2 punch in the passing game, and they each have a Super Bowl ring to prove it. The Patriots traded Moss at the right time. But his best moments here were so fun — and his skillset as the greatest downfield receiver the game has ever known was so different from the attributes of Brady’s other targets — that Patriots fans haven’t stopped coveting that supposed deep threat whenever a big name receiver becomes available.
For years, it was Larry Fitzgerald. Terrell Owens’s name came up from time to time, especially from those serving up hot takes that hadn’t popped from a kernel of actual possibility. Now it’s Johnson, a.k.a. Megatron, a.k.a. that extraordinary receiver for the Lions who dominated while you were stuffing your face on Thanksgiving but never got much of a chance to show his stuff in the playoffs (he’s played in just two postseason games because, you know, he plays for the Lions).
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Johnson told his family and a couple of friends, including Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, that this would be his final season before it began. While the Lions have asked him to think on it a little longer, he’s apparently leaning toward calling it a career at age 30.
If so, it’s been a hell of a career. In nine seasons since he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, he has 731 catches for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns. In ’12, he had best season any receiver has submitted before or since Moss’s ’07 masterpiece, catching 122 passes for a league-record 1,964 yards and five touchdowns. This past season, he earned his sixth Pro Bowl nod with 88 catches for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns. He may not have a Hall of Famer’s longevity, but he sure does have a Hall of Famer’s highlight reel.
Word that a player of such magnitude may walk away while still playing at an exceptional level naturally led some of us around here to fire up the conjecture machine and wondering whether there might be some way to bring him to the Patriots. After all, talking players out of retirement to come win a ring here is a new subgenre of hot takes. Hey, I’m still waiting for Bill Belichick to sign Patrick Willis. Beyond that, the Patriots have had a great thing going here for a decade and a half. It’s reasonable to wonder whether a player who has spent his career with a perennial loser might reconsider plans to walk away should a better opportunity come around. Who would not want to play for Belichick and with Brady? Maybe it’s an arrogant way of thinking. But it is also an undeniable advantage that the Patriots hold.
Yeah, there should be higher priorities for Belichick this offseason beyond adding another wide receiver, especially one who may not be all that keen on playing anymore. What the Patriots really need is a better version of Brandon LaFell. But the thought of Johnson in New England is irresistible, even if it probably amounts to nothing more than a pleasant preoccupation from the reality that the Broncos are playing on while the Patriots, who fumbled the last month of their schedule like some kind of Steven Ridley tribute band, are not.
Of course, the degree of difficulty in making such a daydream a reality extends beyond that complicated math of Johnson’s $24-million cap hit next year. He’s not just a beaten-down Lion. He’s beaten down, period, at least according to former teammate Nate Burleson, who is now with NFL Network.
“If I could lean on something, it’s not about a power play, it’s not about coaching, it’s not about money. I can guarantee anybody at home Calvin doesn’t care about the money,’’ said Burleson. “If he’s considering retiring, he’s concerned about his body and how much he can keep that up and play at a high level like he has been.
He added: “People look at him and say he has an ankle, he has a knee — he’s had those things for the last five, six years. He’s just one of the toughest guys you know because he never talks about it. A true introvert, a true professional that never talks about his injuries.’’
If Burleson speaks the truth and Johnson’s intent is to leave the game with his brain and his bank account intact, well, more power to him. But it doesn’t negate this hypothetical sales pitch from the Patriots: If he played here, with Gronk and Edelman and Brady, the burden on him would be less and, presumably, the bruises fewer.
And if it can’t happen now, maybe Johnson will take a year off, then reconsider. After all, Randy Moss took two years off to prep for his time here. Sure, he was huddling with the Raiders at the time, but we all catch our rest when we can. After nine years with the Lions, Johnson can’t be blamed for needing a break. But even if he retires, pardon us if we refuse to consider it permanent at first. No great receiver is going to be permitted to go away quietly until the narrative that Brady needs a deep threat is gone too.