Why I’m skeptical Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson is a lock for first-ballot Hall of Fame

Detroit Free Press

I got an email early Wednesday afternoon from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which announced 130 modern-era nominees for the class of 2021.

No big deal, I thought.

Then I saw the tweet from the Hall that included an image with three of the first-time nominees: Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and … Calvin Johnson.

Whoa! They included Calvin in this holy trinity? They literally placed him shoulder-to-shoulder with two of the game’s giants, who are guaranteed locks as first-ballot inductees?

Carlos Monarrez: Should Calvin Johnson shut up and stay out of politics? | Opinion


I don’t like reading too much into social media. But this was the Hall of Fame, which is very careful about the information it puts out. I’m pretty sure they didn’t just let Kayden the social-media intern pick three randos out of the 14 first-year eligible players.

First, let’s get something straight. I think just about everyone agrees Calvin is going to be a Hall of Famer at some point, whether he gets in this year or later.

But being a first-ballot guy is different. There are 346 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and only 87 went in on the first ballot. And the truth is Calvin won’t only be judged against every receiver in history, he’ll also be judged against Manning and Woodson.

When the 48 selectors meet the day before the Super Bowl, Manning and Woodson will barely be discussed among the 18 finalists, from whom four to eight new members will be elected. They’re slam dunks. As a courtesy, the reporters charged with presenting the cases for Manning and Woodson might ask if there are any questions about either player.

There won’t be. But there will be questions about Calvin, and any other finalists.

Let me first say this about Calvin’s chances to be a first-ballot guy. I think they’ve steadily improved every year since he retired after the 2015 season.

[ Calvin Johnson joins Michigan State Rep. Joe Tate in criticizing Donald Trump’s leadership ]

I covered Calvin from the time he was drafted second overall in 2007; I witnessed the entire arc of his career and even spoke with him about the Hall of Fame. Toward the end of his career, there were questions about whether he would even be a Hall of Famer. In 2013, I wrote an article about Calvin’s chances after I spoke with some selectors. Most thought he had a good chance if he kept playing for several more years. I don’t think any thought he would retire two years later.

One of the issues that came up during my interviews with the selectors was the comparison between receivers in different eras. A generation or two ago, when defensive backs were allowed to play more freely, a receiver with 100 touchdown catches and 1,000 receptions was a lock for the Hall. But Calvin played in the golden age of receivers, and he finished with 83 touchdown catches and 731 receptions.

You have to remember that many selectors have been doing this a long time. They remember how hard it was to gain yards when players like Oakland Raiders safety Jack “The Assassin” Tatum were terrorizing receivers in the 1970s. This might make it hard to explain why Calvin stopped playing relatively early with less-than-staggering numbers.

Of course, longevity cuts both ways — it was one of the reasons Cris Carter had to wait until his sixth time as a finalist before he was elected. His numbers were seen partly as a product of his lengthy career and statistical inflation due to offense-friendly rules.

Then there are the other receivers who have had to wait. Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne were both first-time finalists last year and they’ll almost certainly be finalists this year. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens were elected in their third time as finalists and Isaac Bruce was elected in his fourth time. Some of the people who presented cases for these receivers might still be selectors who would be right to be stringent in their review of Calvin’s case in his first year.

Here’s my final thought. I think even the most grizzled and cynical sports reporter is a hopeless romantic at heart. We get into this business because we fall in love with games and players as kids. The drama, the highs and lows, the heart-pounding joy and the soul-crushing losses remain with us even now.

And then, every once in a while, someone like Calvin comes along. Someone who doesn’t fit perfectly in the box that’s been constructed for him. Maybe the numbers on a stat sheet don’t add up right. Maybe there are questions that don’t have simple answers.

But as we step further away and look back, we remember what we saw and felt. “Megatron.” The “Madden” cover. Outdoing Jerry Rice for a full season. And maybe even a tweet with a photo that loomed large and spoke a thousand words, reminding us all of what we used to feel about a player.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content

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