Commentary

WR Johnson living up to the hype

Originally Published: August 8, 2009
By Chris Mortensen | ESPN

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There's that old saying that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson still sounds too good to be true, and by all accounts, he remains poised to be an exception to the rule.

"I've coached, I think, since 1969, and I can look you straight in the eye and tell you, honestly, I have never been around a player like Calvin Johnson," said Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. "Every day you see it. The physical skills are the best I've seen. The way he practices every single rep he's on the field never changes. He's 100 percent effort and 100 percent competitive. The same, every play. Wow."

Cunningham said he shouldn't have been surprised. He joined Jim Schwartz's staff in Detroit after a stint with the Kansas City Chiefs, where Chan Gailey was the offensive coordinator. Gailey had been Johnson's college head coach at Georgia Tech.

"Everything I just told you about Calvin -- and I gave you the abbreviated version -- Chan told me about," said Cunningham. "Chan told me I would see the most talented player practice and play at the same level every day. And he was right."

So while Schwartz swears he doesn't know whether he'll open the season with Daunte Culpepper or top draft pick Matthew Stafford at quarterback, he offers no hesitation in offering his own testimony on their favorite weapon.

"Just a freak," Schwartz said. "There are three things that describe Calvin Johnson: One, he is a truly great player. Two, he is the hardest-working player on the team. Three, he is the most humble great player I've ever been around. Now I've been around players who fit the first two descriptions, but not all three combined."

Of course, Johnson came to the Lions with all the hype when he was the second player chosen in the 2007 NFL draft. In 2008, his second season, he caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. It was the only true positive in the NFL's most negative season ever for the 0-16 Lions.

Schwartz was the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, who pinned the Lions' most lopsided defeat on them last Thanksgiving by a 47-10 margin. Regardless, the new Lions coach said he did not enjoy the week preparing for the old Lions last season because of No. 81.

"We had just lost our first game to the Jets the previous Sunday," Schwartz said. "I had a bad taste in my mouth and then I started watching more Lions tape. And even though coaches work a lot of 100-hour weeks, I had about five days of no sleep when we faced the Lions because I saw what Calvin could do to a defense on any given play. The focal point of our game plan was stopping Calvin."

Johnson caught five passes for 60 yards in that game. And the lesson for Schwartz is clear: A team may have one of the most dynamic players in the NFL, but it guarantees you nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero.

Just ask the Lions.

A little more of what I saw and learned visiting the Lions, the eighth stop on my training camp bus tour:

  • The team brass realizes that any defense can stack the deck to neutralize a player of Johnson's talent, so offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will have the receiver lined up all over the formation, including the slot. Cunningham and Linehan will ramp up some defensive looks aimed at containing Johnson to determine how to counterattack during the regular season.

  • Culpepper was just beaming after Saturday's practice. He's 30 pounds lighter and he has reunited with Linehan, who was calling the plays in Minnesota when Culpepper had one of the best seasons ever for a quarterback, passing for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2004. "I haven't felt this good since that season," said Culpepper, who injured his knee in 2005.

  • Even though Culpepper took the first reps Saturday at quarterback, Stafford has been so impressive that he could still open the season as the starter. "Maybe Matt has surprised some of the [veterans] at how good he is and the way he carries himself, but he hasn't surprised me, our GM [Martin Mayhew], our area scouts, our position coaches -- I've never seen an organization come to a unanimous decision on a player as we did with Matthew," Schwartz said.

  • Stafford's first hazing came from Schwartz himself, when the coach opened camp by showing the team a slideshow of what "we did on our summer vacation." According to Schwartz, Stafford instinctively knew what was coming next: Several embarrassing photos of the former Georgia quarterback and his infamous beer-keg, frat-type partying outside Talladega Raceway that brought Stafford some real scrutiny after his freshman season.

  • If Stafford is the starter, the Lions would like to use the blueprint utilized by the Steelers and Ravens when Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco started as rookies, throwing the football about 17 to 20 times a game. That still means trying to get Johnson 10 to 15 of those passes. One big problem with that blueprint: The Lions don't have the defense the Steelers and Ravens had for Roethlisberger and Flacco.

  • The Lions are convinced Kevin Smith will have a big season at running back, and they like their backfield depth, which includes Maurice Morris.

  • Schwartz said the Lions turned over about 50 percent of the roster. Actually, when training camp began, it was exactly 50 percent -- 40 new players out of 80 from a year ago. The turnover won't stop. "As I learned under [Bill] Belichick, there are no 16-game scholarships for players," Schwartz said. "You always tweak your roster when an opportunity presents itself on waiver wires."

  • One last note on Johnson: Schwartz tested all players on their "measurables" before he dismissed the team from the 14-week offseason training program and the receiver did a 44-inch vertical leap. When the team returned, all were tested again. Another 44-inch vertical for Johnson. When Schwartz heard we were having Johnson put the Lions' decal on the back of our bus, he said, "If it wasn't raining [Saturday], Calvin could stick that thing with a flat-footed jump. And if he took a running start, he'd land on top of your bus."

    Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.