by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

In the fog of the draft, this much is clear: Everyone thought Calvin Johnson was the best player on the board. The Lions chose the best player on the board.

And you can have the best player on the board – and still lose a lot of games.

The Lions had Barry Sanders for a decade and lost a lot of games. They’ve had Roy Williams – a Pro Bowl receiver – and have lost a lot of games. Now they have another receiver, Calvin Johnson, whose very name seems to cause analysts to salivate. He is big. He is fast. He apparently was born on Krypton.

The roster just got better.

We’ll see about the record.

“I told him when he was here he wouldn’t get past two,” Matt Millen told the media in a broadcast news briefing.

“If you’re looking at the measurables, they’re way off the charts,” Millen said. “If you’re looking at the intangibles, he has all of those as well.”

It’s those intangibles that really had the Lions’ brass gushing. Rod Marinelli mentioned Johnson’s character about 800 times. Mike Martz admired his maturity and love of the game. Millen cooed about his willingness to work.

I don’t know how many passes he’s going to catch, but if Johnson wants to run for mayor, he’s got a shot.

This kid, Millen said, will turn the Lions “into one of the most dynamic offenses in this league.”

And, when Martz was asked how Johnson ranked among past receivers coming out of college, he said, “He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”


I am thrilled the Lions took a player that everyone else wanted. It’s nice to have something in Detroit football that everyone else wants. But while skills are paramount and character is wonderful, Marinelli, Martz and Millen also will tell you: Football is played by 22 players at a time, and receivers only can catch what is thrown in their direction.

That means Johnson’s success depends on his quarterback’s arm, his quarterback’s accuracy and his quarterback’s protection. The Lions, by most any measure, had one of the worst offensive lines in the league last year.

They allowed 63 sacks.

They allowed 63 sacks and had 21 passing touchdowns – a 3-to-1 ratio in the wrong direction.

They allowed 63 sacks, while the Indianapolis Colts, who won the Super Bowl, allowed 15 – a 2-to-1 ratio in the right direction.

Calvin Johnson may be Superman, but even he can’t block, throw and catch at the same time.

The Williams and Johnson Show

Barry Sanders, in a conversation I had with him a few months ago, jokingly suggested that the Lions should draft “all offensive linemen” and worry about getting skill players later.

At least I think he was joking.

But the Lions, on Saturday, passed on an offensive lineman, Joe Thomas, that most analysts predict will be a 10-year starter. They passed on Gaines Adams, a defensive end that many project to be a star in the league. With the second pick in the whole draft, they chose the best player on the board, but a position they have now taken four times in the past five years with their top pick.

So this fall they should have two tall, excellent receivers to line up most every play – Williams on one side, Johnson on the other. But a few years ago, they thought they’d have Williams on one side and Charles Rogers on the other. And later they thought they’d have Williams on one side, maybe Rogers on the other, maybe Mike Williams in between.

Now – with Rogers and Mike Williams as busts no longer on the team – they are back to finding a complement for Roy Williams. And this still doesn’t change the fact that, even in a great game, a receiver catches 10 passes, whereas a running back can carry 25 times and a quarterback can throw 35 times.

Oh, and their defense is awful.

So they haven’t solved their problems. Not by a long shot. Having said that, this kid is, by all reports, a stunner, a fantastic tool. And when you have Martz in charge of an offense, you want to give him as many tools as possible.

It’s like giving Picasso paint. You trust he’ll make something great with it.

“I think the biggest advantage of Calvin opposed to Roy is that Calvin doesn’t have to unlearn a system in the NFL,” Martz told the Detroit media.

The mad doctor goes to work.

First things first, please

Johnson, during a news conference in New York, was asked what his greatest challenge would be in the NFL.

“Just keeping my same intensity and even more,” he said. “A lot of guys get laidback after they make it into the league. They think that they have made it. You know, so I have to just keep up my intensity.”

That’s for sure. Especially in November, when the team’s record could be 3-8.

Which brings us to this “character” thing. Look. I like the fact that Marinelli is emphasizing football spirit and locker-room cohesion. I think it’s important, in the NFL, to have guys who pull in the same direction. You see what a Terrell Owens can do when pulling in the opposite direction.

But I caution the Lions not to jump to too many conclusions about a 21-year-old college kid’s personality. I mean, did you hear the Lions’ brass on Saturday in those briefings?

“Character,” Marinellli said. “Football character. … He brings a lot to the table. … His character is really special … It’s about winning.”

And Martz: “When great character meets great ability like that, only good things can happen. … You’d have to give him high marks in every way, both as a man and as a football player.”

Gosh. How much time did these guys spend with him? A year? I mean, I know they call his old coaches, his relatives, his teachers. But how much can be gleaned from a 21-year-old who comes for a visit? Remember, no one has seen him with money yet. He’s suddenly going to have millions and that can change anybody. And Johnson did, during a video questionnaire at the scouting combine, admit to using marijuana, about which he said in a media conference call, “I don’t mess with it anymore.”

I assume he means marijuana, not the questionnaire.

Also, no one has seen him on a perennial losing franchise like the Lions. Losing changes players, too. Joey Harrington smiled a lot before he got here, remember?

All I’m saying is, let’s not put too much pressure on this kid to lead with his character. First let him find a house, open a bank account, get directions to Allen Park.

Oh, and catch some passes. That, we feel confident he can do. He was the best player on the board and the Lions took him. For that, they will be rewarded with much fan applause during introductions to the games.

How much clapping we’ll hear after the game is still the big question.

“When great character meets great ability like that, only good things can happen. … You’d have to give him high marks in every way, both as a man and as a football player.”MIKE MARTZ, Lions offensive coordinator, on wide receiver Calvin Johnson

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show”3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “For One More Day,” for Mother’s Day. On May 11: Noon at Borders in the downtown Compuware Building and 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills. On May 12: 11 a.m. at Sam’s Club in Novi and 1:30 p.m. at Cotsco on Telegraph in Bloomfield.


Top-10 receivers: Plenty of hits and misses

Receivers taken among the top 10 picks since 1995 and their stats at the position, plus our ranking on whether the player was a bust, good or a star:

Year Receiver Pk Team Stats Rating 1996 Keyshawn Johnson 1 Jets 814 REC, 64 TDs; 70 and four in ’06 GOOD 1996 Terry Glenn .. 7 Patriots 593 REC, 44 TDs; 70 and six in ’06 GOOD 1997 Ike Hilliard ….. 7 Giants 437 REC, 30 TDs; 34 and two in ’06 GOOD 1999 Torry Holt …. 6 Rams 712 REC, 64 TDs; 93 and 10 in ’06 STAR 1999 David Boston 8 Cardinals 315 REC, 25 TDs; did not play in ’06 BUST 2000 Peter Warrick . 4 Bengals 275 REC, 18 TDs; did not play in ’06 BUST 2000 Plaxico Burress . 8 Steelers 400 REC, 39 TDs; 63 and 10 in ’06 GOOD 2000 Travis Taylor . 10 Ravens 311 REC, 22 TDs; 57 and three in ’06 GOOD 2001 David Terrell … 8 Bears 128 REC, nine TDs; did not play in ’06 BUST 2001 Koren Robinson 9 Seahawks 242 REC, 13 TDs; seven and none in ’06 BUST 2003 Charles Rogers .. 2 Lions 36 REC, four TDs; did not play in ’06 BUST 2003 Andre Johnson . 3 Texans 311 REC, 17 TDs; 103 and five in ’06 GOOD 2004 Larry Fitzgerald …. 3 Cardinals 230 REC, 24 TDs; 69 and six in ’06 STAR 2004 Roy Williams …. 7 Lions 181 REC, 23 TDs; 82 and seven in ’06 GOOD 2004 Reggie Williams . 9 Jaguars 114 REC, five TDs; 52 and four in ’06 GOOD 2005 Braylon Edwards 3 Browns 93 REC, nine TDs; 61 and six in ’06 GOOD 2005 Troy Williamson… 7 Vikings 61 REC, two TDs; 37 and none in ’06 BUST 2005 Mike Williams .. 10 Lions 37 REC, two TDs; eight and one in ’06 BUST


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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