Only three days after his ninth NFL season ended, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson has begun openly talking about the possibility that there won’t be a tenth.
It’s curious timing, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the statement has less to do with his desire to play and more to do with a contract that will be impossible for the Lions to justify honoring, at a cap number of $24 million and a salary of nearly $16 million for 2016.
So by announcing today that Johnson may have an announcement at some point in the future, Johnson has put everyone on notice that he’s thinking about not returning to the Lions in 2016, which in turn means he could be persuaded to go elsewhere. And it’s an invitation for other teams to tamper with Johnson by reaching out to his agent with hypothetical contract figures that hypothetically would be available for a player who hypothetically wants to leave his current team. Hypothetically. Then, he’ll be able to compare those offers to whatever the Lions may offer on a revised deal, and he’ll be able to decide whether to stay with the Lions, pick a new team, or walk away.
If Johnson actually is thinking about quitting the game, he needs to realize that how he feels at the end of a season will be much different than how he’ll feel at the start of a new one. If he has any doubts about that, he should ask Brett Favre, who began his annual will-I-or-won’t-I-retire routine not at age 30 but at age 32 and who was nudged into retirement by the Packers in February 2008, at a time in the offseason where he was more prone to declare, “I’m done.”
If Johnson does retire, he’d join running back Barry Sanders as all-time Lions greats who parked the car with gas in the tank. Like Sanders, Johnson would surely be the subject of several years of speculation about whether he’ll return.
Also like Sanders, Johnson would have to pay back some bonus money to walk away. Specifically, there’s $3.2 million remaining on the $16 million signing bonus he received when he signed his current contract in 2012.
The bottom line is that Johnson surely won’t turn up his nose at $16 million for one more year, and that the Lions surely won’t pay him that amount. The real question is how much the Lions or someone else would pay, and whether that will be enough to persuade Johnson to keep going.