DETROIT — We find ourselves, now more than ever, in the business of mythmaking—Calvin Johnson is the unimpeachable, superhuman #Megatron—as fast as we can bang out breathless post-big-play tweets. Had a talent comparable to the Lions’ receiver lived in the 1920s and not been born in the ’80s, famed sportswriter/hero-maker Grantland Rice might have described him as the tap-dancing, football-swallowing Poseidon of Ford Field. Today, we just scream-annoint him a BEAST and leave it at that.
It’s as fantastic a farce as there is in pro football.
Calvin Johnson is not an animal, or a demigod, or a car that turns into a robot. He is a man—a man who takes our breath away on some Sundays and disappointed us on this very important Monday night. It was one of the most important games during this spectacular three-year stretch of his, during which he’s produced over 5,000 yards receiving combined, and he didn’t deliver.
In an 18-16 loss that ensured the Lions (7-7) would need help to make the playoffs, even if they win out, Detroit’s best player in a generation dropped two third-down passes from Matt Stafford, caught six balls and failed to score. Both drops happened in Ravens territory. One came on 3rd-and-15. They bounced off his enormous hands and onto the fake grass, kicking up rubber flecks as the piqued home crowd went limp. They were drive-killers, and some Lions fans will probably recall them as season-killers.
Johnson was so open on the first of those drops, Baltimore’s defensive backs might as well have been among those great lubed and sad masses watching from the stands.
But did their jaws drop, too, when Johnson dropped the footballs? Not exactly.
“If you watch film on him, you’ll see that he’ll drop the ball,” said Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb. “He’s sure-handed, but he drops a couple. I was still surprised that he dropped them on us, in this game.”
It’s so rare it can be hard to recognize when you first hear it. It’s a simple acknowledgement that Johnson is a guy who drops footballs, just like every other receiver since the introduction of the forward pass. Among wide receivers with over 100 targets in 2013, he entered Monday with the 12th-highest drop rate, just a clip better than Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas, but below Thomas’s teammate, Eric Decker. And this is nothing new: Johnson had the most targets in 2012 among NFL receivers (199) and the second-most drops (14).
But you would be hard-pressed to hear the unfiltered truth about Johnson, or players like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson from an opponent in the week leading up to a game. Why? Just ask Ravens rookie Matt Elam. The unsuspecting safety dipped his toe in the truth last week when he heaped praise upon Johnson, but added, innocently, that Megatron was getting old. Bless you, Matt Elam. You couldn’t know then what you know now; that just about every reporter asking what you surmise it might be like to go up against Calvin Johnson cares not that you think he’s awesome in almost every way. They want to hear criticism, so it can be tossed and dyed and woven into insult. They want to hear the truth, so they can punish you for it.
As Elam put it after the victory: “It was no disrespect meant to Calvin. He’s the best in the league, so why would I challenge him?
“Words just got stirred up.”
Now you know, Matt. And you didn’t even have to take the medicine so many wanted you to swallow. Instead, Justin Tucker’s 61-yard field goal just cleared the goalposts, the Ravens moved to 8-6 and closer to the postseason. Johnson’s team slunk to the locker room, out of sight of the thousands wearing blue No. 81 jerseys, past the mural on the wall outside the locker room with a picture of Johnson making some impossible catch despite a Cowboys defender clinging to him. And then he was asked to explain, essentially, why he wasn’t that guy on this night.
“When the drops happen, you just didn’t get the ball all the way,” he said, seated at his locker, staring between the ground and the cameras in his face. “It’s as simple as that. I just have to stay on it one more second, you know?”
It seems simple, but for many, it’s difficult to accept. The guy we want so desperately to be uber-human didn’t have the discipline to spend that extra half-second thinking about catching the football. Yet the Lions didn’t lose for that reason any more than the Ravens won because Tucker connected just right on one very long field goal attempt. Bad passes, forced throws and dropped balls ruled the day when two fringe playoff hopefuls got together, and one club happened to make one or two fewer critical errors than the other. In one very important way, those 60 minutes of football were just like the men who played them: Flawed.