DALLAS -- Calvin Johnson may hold a bevy of receiving records, but his resolve to hold on with the Detroit Lions and the NFL may not be for long. On Feb. 1, the six-time Pro Bowler informed the Lions he was pondering retirement though still in his prime.
For Detroit sports fans, history seems to be rhyming as this was same predicament that befell their Lions in 1999 when 31-year-old running back Barry Sanders called it quits.
Sanders, who was with Doak Walker Award winner Derrick Henry from Alabama to visit kids at Children's Medical Center, knows full well where the 30-year-old receiver is coming from.
"There's part of me certainly that can empathize with him as well part of me that's saying, 'Well, maybe a couple more years we can get out of him,'" Sanders said. "It's funny because the off-season in the NFL, as you get older, it gets shorter. It's such an emotional game."
Not to kick Detriot fans in the shin, but the Lions have won only one playoff game since 1990 despite eight postseason berths -- five with Sanders carrying the rock (1991, 1993-95, 1997), two with Johnson hauling in catches (2011, 2014), and one with Charlie Batch under center (1999). Certainly the emotions of striving to get into the postseason only to make an early exit have to weigh on grossly talented players like Johnson and Sanders.
Sanders stated that sometimes it is just the "suddenness" that can affect players, with Sanders specifically pointing to the 2014 wild card playoff loss against Dallas where a crucial pass defensive pass interference call on the Cowboys was picked up by referee Pete Morelli's crew.
"Sometimes that suddenness, it's so frustrating. It just swings your emotions back and forth."
Coming off of a playoff appearance, the Lions started 1-7 in 2015, but battled throughout the year to finish 7-9, four games out from the division-leading Vikings and three games out from the wild card Packers. It was the inverse of the 2012 season where coming off a playoff berth the Lions started 4-4 only to finish with an eight-game losing streak. And, no, franchise quarterback Matt Stafford was not injured in '12 or '15 and played all 16 games respectively.
"I don't know that this applies to Calvin, but I just know that sometimes you feel one way one day and that may change another," Sanders said. "Maybe there are some things we can do from an organizational standpoint to make it more appealing for him."
The Lions have paired Johnson with the likes of tight end Brandon Pettigrew since 2010 and acquired receiver Golden Tate from Seattle in 2014, who earned a Pro Bowl berth for his 1,331-yard season. Still, the passing game, led by the Stafford-to-Johnson connection, can't do it alone. Since the pairing of this combo in 2009, the Lions have only had one 1,000-yard rusher: Reggie Bush. Even so, Bush barely crossed the 1,000-yard threshold by six yards. Detroit's defense, which was third in points allowed and second in yards in '14, dropped to 23rd and 18th in '15. No surprise this coincided with the loss of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Said Sanders: "He's played nine years. When Calvin Johnson steps on the field, he's always a target. We know that it's something he's probably thought about and what have you."
Sanders was always a target when he played for the Lions from 1989-98. Despite being the majority of Detroit's offense, he made the Pro Bowl every one of his 10 seasons and racked up at least 1,100 yards rushing annually. Along with his six All Pro selections, Sanders willed the Lions to five playoff seasons and the club's only postseason win since 1958, a 38-6 shaming of the Cowboys in the divisional playoffs. Aside from that lone season where Sanders and company were one game away from the Super Bowl, the Lions remained one game in the playoffs before bowing out. Sanders helped the Lions win games to get to the playoffs, but Detroit not always had enough around him to secure home playoff games or first-round byes, the additives his peers such as Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Ricky Watters, and others had that helped them play in conference title games and beyond.
In 1998, a year after Detroit fell 20-10 to Tampa Bay in the wild card round, the Lions followed up Sanders' 2,000-yard season and MVP year with a 5-11 campaign. Sanders, like the legend he was, gave his 1,491 rushing yards. The team around him led by head coach Bobby Ross fell from 10th in points against to 24th, and from 14th in yards allowed to 15th. Scott Mitchell, who started all 16 games in '97, only started two in '98 with the rookie Batch starting 12 and compiling a 5-7 record.
"It seems like sometimes your emotions swing back and forth," Sanders said.
Over the '99 off-season, the former Oklahoma State runner's emotions swung towards retirement and held firm in late July. Just 1,458 yards away from breaking Walter Payton's mark for most career rushing yards, Sanders announced his retirement and rushed off into the sunset and forever in NFL history.
Johnson is nowhere near the records of legendary receiver Jerry Rice with his 1,549 catches or 22,895 receiving yards, but Johnson does own the record for most receiving yards in a season with 1,964 and fastest to 10,000 receiving yards in just 115 games. It is not out of the question for one of the gold jackets to await Johnson in Canton along with his bronze bust.
"As a former Lion and as a fan, we sure would like to talk him out of it," Sanders added.
The Lions front office is hopeful Johnson will make a firm decision by March 9 when the All Pro receiver incurs a $24 million cap hit for the team. If Johnson retires before March 9 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, the club has some extra cash to pursue his replacement. If he follows exactly in Sanders' footsteps and ends his career after that time, Detroit instantly becomes a cap-strapped club.