Calvin Johnson became the next Barry Sanders. That is to say, he was an absolute superstar. Arguably the best at his position during the entire time he was in the NFL. Also like Sanders, he retired young. At just 30 years of age, he decided to walk away from the Detroit Lions. A sign that the organization continues to waste some truly special talents with their remarkable ineptitude at building a winning organization.
The final straw came in 2015. Here the Lions were. They’d just gone 11-5 the year before and came a horrible penalty call away from knocking off the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. This would be their year to finally break through. Instead? They lose their first five games of the year and see a late rally fall to pieces on a heartbreaking night against Green Bay that featured a Hail Mary ending. Detroit finished 7-9.
Johnson, dealing with all sorts of injuries and realizing the team was trending backward, decided it was time to get out. In truth though, that decision had probably had seeds long before that. All the way back in 2008 when the organization embarked on the worst single season in NFL history (to date). A season that, as it turns out, some on the team saw coming.
Calvin Johnson was literally told 0-16 was coming
In a fantastic reveal-all piece for Sports Illustrated by Michael Rosenberg, Johnson revealed the depth of his career experiences and what led to his fateful decision to retire so young. One story he told painted a clear picture of how trapped he must’ve felt in that organization.
Veterans would join Detroit and tell Johnson about everything the team did wrong. Eventually he started to notice himself. The front office and coaching staff were rarely aligned. The massage therapist who was there on Fridays and Mondays would be gone the next year. Stuff like that.
Here is a story. In Johnson’s second year, quarterback Jon Kitna said—well, take it away, Calvin: “He left the meeting room one day, and he told the coaches and the whole team that we’re not gonna win a game if we go into the season with [this] system. Somebody should have listened. Because we were 0–16 after that.”
That year, Johnson says, “plenty of guys on the team [said], ‘I don’t know if I want to play football anymore.’ ”
Johnson was young at the time and managed to persevere, but it’s obvious that experience never left him. Going 0-16 is about as humiliating as it gets, especially for a competitor like him. The fact that Detroit hasn’t done anything different since he left pretty much reinforces his decision to leave. One would think they might’ve learned a lesson after losing two Hall of Famers to early retirements.