To illustrate how poorly the Detroit Lions played in 2012, look no further than Calvin Johnson’s stats. At 6-5 and 236 lbs, Johnson caught 122 balls for an NFL record 1,964 yards. Having a receiver that puts up nearly 2,000 yards and still managing to finish 4-12 is remarkably bad. At this rate, the Lions may have people second guessing that the NFL is now strictly a passing league. Not only did Johnson set a record for yardage, but quarterback Matthew Stafford also broke the single season record for passing attempts.
Although Johnson’s season was tremendous, it may have been a little deceiving also. From a fantasy perspective his campaign in 2011 was actually a lot better. Last season Johnson still put up 1,681 yards receiving, but also added 16 touchdowns. This year, although he put up a few more yards, Johnson only had five scores and no multi-touchdown games. Essentially he gained 283 yards, but finished with 11 less touchdowns and fewer fantasy points overall.
Johnson’s drop off in touchdowns was a big reason the Lions went from 10-6 and a playoff squad in 2011, to a 4-12 team this year. Amazingly his receiving yardage didn’t seem to impact the Lions in the win column at all, unlike his division counterpart Adrian Peterson did with the Minnesota Vikings. Peterson’s near record-setting 2,097 rushing yards in 2012 helped the Vikings to ten wins and a playoff spot. Without Peterson the Vikings would have easily been one of the NFL’s bottom feeders.
Another reason Johnson’s year may not have been what it seemed from a fantasy standpoint was his first half of 2012. In his first eight games Johnson only had four 100-plus yard receiving games, one game where he caught at least 10 passes, and just a single touchdown. In the second half of the campaign he was only held below 100 yards only one time and added four touchdowns. That’s great for a playoff run from your fantasy team, but the problem is if you took Johnson as your first round pick this season, you may have fallen too far behind the competition to have reached the post-season.
The fact that Johnson had such a yardage explosion and a drop in touchdowns might be because defenses figured out a roundabout way of stopping him, as weird as that sounds. It’s a lot easier to defend a receiver inside your own 20, than it is anywhere else on the field. Once you get close to your own goal-line there just isn’t as much space to manoeuvre and the route tree becomes limited. Teams seemed content to give Johnson underneath catches while playing zone between the 20’s, and then clamping down on him with double, and sometimes even triple teams, in the red-zone. Essentially using the bend but don’t break mentality.
Johnson also became the Lions answer for their lack of a running game. In 2012 the Lions averaged 100.8 yards on the ground per contest, which was only good enough for 22nd in the league. Instead of trying to establish the run, Detroit targeted their big wideout to stay ahead in the down and distance. Johnson led the league with a whopping 92 catches on first down.
One thing that did make Johnson’s season all the more impressive were the injuries that the Lions had to their other wide receivers. Both Ryan Broyles and Nate Burleson were lost for the year, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew also missed significant time late in the season. Not to mention, in what resembled an nWo heel-like turn from the late 90’s, Titus Young was benched after a game against the Green Bay Packers when he purposely lined up in the wrong formation. Despite all this, Johnson excelled even when opposing defenses knew the ball was going his way more often than not.
Detroit certainly has to be happy with Johnson’s play, and the fact that they finally drafted a receiver in the first round that panned out, but are they as excited with Stafford’s development? The first overall selection from Georgia has a good connection with Johnson, but perhaps that is slowing his progress in some way. Stafford doesn’t have very good mechanics and has established little chemistry with his other receivers. The main reason for that is he relies on Johnson so much. Often times he just throws off his back foot in Johnson’s direction hoping he makes a play.
So what does this mean for Johnson’s fantasy outlook in 2013? Well if Detroit wants to win more games, and based on their play in recent years many are not sure if they actually do, the way they utilize their go-to receiver will need to change slightly. The Lions have to figure out a way to run the ball effectively, as well as finding another receiving threat or two. This would mean that Johnson’s yardage should come down a fair bit, which would give him a few better red-zone matchups and hopefully lead to more scores in the process.
Johnson’s memorable season in 2012 didn’t necessarily help Detroit push for a playoff spot, but he may have gone a long way to finally ending the infamous Madden curse. Setting the single-season receiving yardage mark should prove to even the most superstitious person that the curse doesn’t exist, until you remember that Johnson is still stuck on the Lions. That is another level of misfortune altogether.