Ask me who the best receiver in NFL history is, and my answer is Jerry Rice, and no active receiver is close. So please understand that I’m not suggesting that Calvin Johnson has had a better career than Jerry Rice.
But I want to ask a different question: Has anyone — even the immortal Jerry Rice– ever played the wide receiver position better than Calvin Johnson is playing it right now?
With all due respect to Rice, I believe the answer to that question is no. The level of play Megatron has achieved over the last few years exceeds that of any wide receiver in the history of the game, even including Jerry Rice at his best.
From the start of the 2011 season through yesterday’s insane 14-catch, 329-yard game against the Cowboys, Johnson has 4,466 receiving yards. Over the best 2.5-season stretch of Rice’s career (the second half of 1993 and all of 1994 and 1995), he had 4,102 receiving yards. Johnson had 1,964 receiving yards last year, breaking Rice’s NFL single-season record. Johnson now has topped 200 yards six times in his last 27 games, counting the playoffs. Rice topped 200 yards five times in 332 career games, counting the playoffs.
But I don’t want to go too far down the statistical comparisons because there are a lot of respects in which the stats don’t tell the story. Johnson’s numbers are inflated by the fact that he’s playing in a better passing era than Rice was, and also by the fact that the Lions are a worse team than Rice’s 49ers were, which means they’re throwing late in games a lot more than Rice’s 49ers were. The flip side of that is, Rice was catching passes from Hall of Famers (Joe Montana early in his career, Steve Young starting in 1991) and had excellent teammates like John Taylor, Ricky Watters and Brent Jones preventing the defense from putting everything into stopping him. Johnson is catching passes from Matthew Stafford, who’s a promising young quarterback but nowhere near the type of passer that Montana and Young were, and this year’s arrival of Reggie Bush marks the first time Johnson has ever had a top-flight talent playing with him on the Lions’ offense.
So aside from stats, what makes me say Johnson is playing better football now than Rice ever did? It mostly comes down to their physical differences. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Johnson makes plays that the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Rice did not. Rice was a genius for running perfect routes and getting open, but Johnson is so physically imposing that he makes plays even when he’s not open. The catches like Johnson’s 50-yard touchdown last week against the Bengals, when Stafford launched the ball deep into the end zone and Johnson went up and grabbed it despite being surrounded by three Bengals, are the plays that no one else at the wide receiver position has made.
And games like Johnson’s performance on Sunday are the games that no one else at the wide receiver position has had. How can Johnson, the guy every defensive coordinator in the NFL knows he has to stop, catch 87.5 percent of the passes thrown to him for 20.6 yards per attempt, as he did on Sunday? The answer is that he’s playing the wide receiver position right now better than anyone has ever played it.
Johnson was my favorite player in any of Sunday’s games. Here are some other thoughts:
Hard-luck player of the week: Reed Doughty. Doughty, a Washington safety, grew up in the Denver suburbs, and so he bought 40 tickets for friends and family to Sunday’s game against the Broncos. It should have been a great “local boy makes good” moment for him, except that he suffered a concussion last week and ended up not playing against the Broncos and not even making the trip to Denver. I hope his friends and family enjoyed the game anyway.
The Jaguars aren’t just bad, they’re historically bad. After Sunday’s 42-10 loss to the 49ers, the Jaguars are 0-8, and they’re getting blown out, week in and week out, like no team since the 1944 franchise that merged the Cardinals and Steelers because players were scarce during World War II. I thought before the season that the Jaguars were the worst team in the league, but they’re even worse than I thought they’d be. I figured they’d be your run-of-the-mill lousy 3-13 team. In reality, your run-of-the-mill lousy 3-13 team would be a double-digit favorite over these Jaguars.
Best block of the day belonged to Larry Warford. A rookie guard for the Lions, Warford got out in front of running back Joique Bell on a screen pass and planted Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee into the turf. It was a textbook example of the right way for an offensive lineman to play a screen pass.
It’s amazing that the Patriots keep winning. There comes a point when no team can withstand the loss of too many good players, and the Patriots seem like they should have reached that point. They lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez before the season. They’ve lost Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork to season-ending injuries. Aqib Talib was out Sunday. Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola have missed most of the year. You just can’t lose that many good players. And yet New England is 6-2 after Sunday’s win over the Dolphins. Bill Belichick is a coaching genius.
What happened to Chip Kelly, offensive genius? I know the Eagles have had injuries to both first-string quarterback Michael Vick and second-string quarterback Nick Foles, but shouldn’t an offensive innovator like Kelly be able to manufacture some points anyway? Here’s how every single Eagles offensive drive has ended in the last two weeks: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, punt, field goal, interception, interception, interception, interception, interception, punt, punt, punt, fumble, downs, punt, punt, punt, downs, interception. Yes, in the last two weeks the Eagles have had 15 punts, five interceptions (on five consecutive drives), one lost fumble, one missed field goal and one made field goal. And the one made field goal came on a drive that started in field goal range. If you were flipping back and forth between the Lions and the Eagles on Sunday, you got to see Megatron playing the receiver position at its best, and the Eagles playing offense at its worst.