Wojo: Lions lose petty spat with Calvin Johnson, and it’s a pity

Detroit News

When Calvin Johnson delivers his Hall of Fame induction speech Sunday night, he probably won’t thank the Detroit Lions. He might not even mention them. The rest of the football world might be surprised, but we won’t.

It’s a shame, the type of ridiculous, self-induced shame the Lions have incurred too many times, on and off the field. The franchise and one of the NFL’s all-time great receivers split shortly after Johnson retired in 2016, an ugly ending the Lions didn’t really see coming. They rarely do.

This is what has to change for the rest of the NFL to take the Lions seriously, and for anyone to believe they’re capable of transforming their woeful culture. This is what owner Sheila Ford Hamp must do much better than her parents. She and Johnson have talked and reportedly made progress on reconciliation, but nothing has happened. With the right leadership — a promising regime led by GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell — boosted by a hungry, avid fan base, there’s no reason the Lions can’t slowly ascend the league ladder.

Sheila and Steve Hamp and other support staffers are expected in Canton, Ohio for the ceremony, hoping to celebrate the man who still holds the NFL record for single-season receiving yards (1,964 in 2012). Johnson said discussions with the Lions are at a “standstill,” but he previously spoke positively about Hamp, and she shared the optimism. A Lions source said there is ongoing communication and the franchise openly welcomes him back.

It doesn’t matter any longer who’s right or wrong, who won or lost. The Lions lost because they need connections to their few former greats more than vice-versa. Of all the symbols of the Lions’ misery, this is near the top: Two Hall-of-Famers, Johnson and Barry Sanders, unceremoniously bolted at the prime age of 30.

It’s up to the Lions to fix this. Holmes and Hamp have been busy remaking the franchise, and Johnson’s estrangement isn’t as important as, you know, trying to field a winning team. But these silly battles still define them. Team president Rod Wood, who handled Johnson’s contract and is the primary source of his ire, politely declined to address specifics about the issue.

The new leadership craves collaboration and clarity, and that’s what we need to see here, not more cluelessness and confusion. Historically, the Lions peddle in the petty and generate pity. Is Johnson being petty because he was forced to repay approximately $1.6 million when he retired? Sure. He made around $114 million from the Lions and famously became Megatron. But while this began as a money issue it’s now a respect issue, and the Lions have been ill-equipped when vying for respect.

In his pre-Hall of Fame interviews, Johnson dismissed the Lions with such detached ease, it was purposeful and personal. Asked if he’d have anything to say if he saw Wood in Canton, Johnson said, “If I pass Rod Wood, I’m keeping moving.”

In his eight-minute speech, Johnson said he plans to thank a lot of people, but as for the place he spent his entire nine-year NFL career: “For the Lions, hey, like I said, I ain’t got nothing to say.”

The Lions aren’t saying much either, perhaps hoping time heals as effectively as money. Time and money helped bring their other once-estranged Hall of Famer, Sanders, back into the fold in an ambassador role.

Johnson speaks positively about Detroit fans and the state of Michigan, where he still lives. When asked about the Lions rift, he was fairly coy. He said when he told the organization he was retiring because he was physically worn out, the first response was a request for the money. A Lions source noted the team has never told its side of the story, and for confidentiality reasons, won’t.

From an accounting standpoint, the Lions wanted repayment for salary-cap purposes. And apparently, they can’t directly pay it back now because it would violate league rules, even five years later. What they could do is make amends in other ways – an appreciation for Johnson’s achievements, an apology for handling his exit poorly, and perhaps, say, a $1.6 million donation to the Calvin Johnson Foundation.

The Lions are easy foils because of their lousy reputation and record. Johnson said he knew around 2014 it was going to end, after the Lions made the playoffs and started dismantling a strong defense. Like Sanders a generation before, and Matthew Stafford more recently, not many get out unscathed, and few say nice things as they depart.

Stafford was the exception, and perhaps that’s a clue the Lions understand how foolish they’ve looked. Granting Stafford’s wish and trading him to the Rams was executed by Holmes and approved by Hamp, who desperately wants to erase the franchise’s stain.

It’s not a coincidence Johnson’s animosity is directed at the person who handles the money. Wood isn’t a football guy, but a numbers guy, just like previous team presidents Tom Lewand and Chuck Schmidt. When you’re a money man, you’re trained to remove emotion and make the spreadsheets balance.

Wood does parts of his job very well, but a public face of a franchise shouldn’t be the money guy. It should be the GM, the coach, the quarterback, the owner, the stars.

Campbell talks about respecting the game and each other, which comes after three seasons with the disrespectful Matt Patricia, seemingly reviled by every player that departed. The Lions have lacked the connectivity gene, evidenced by the turbulent, divisive run of Patricia and Bob Quinn.

Maybe Hamp, Holmes and Campbell can alter perceptions, and they did bring another former great, Chris Spielman, into the organization. But the Lions fall far short compared to other teams’ treatment of departing stars. The Colts let Andrew Luck keep $25 million in bonuses when he suddenly retired in 2019. The Cowboys agreed to cut Tony Romo instead of letting him retire, which preserved his $5-million bonus.

Winning precisely one playoff game in 64 years is almost impossible to do in the history of American sports. That’s the Lions’ overriding crime against competition, compounded by their pettiness. They also were within contractual boundaries to seek repayment from Sanders in 1997, forcing him to return two-thirds of his $11-million signing bonus. They may have been fiscally correct, but they were respectfully wrong.

Johnson and Sanders were remarkable, but quiet players. They gave their all on the field and offered little feedback on the direction of the franchise. In that communication void, the Lions were left to their own clumsy devices. Denial, delusion and often defiance. No, they wouldn’t let Sanders play for another team. No, they wouldn’t waive what he owed. But hey Barry, you wanna come back and say hi to the fans?

Johnson said he often dreamed of playing for the Packers, but it’s unclear if he ever asked to be traded. A lot is unclear and we only revisit it because the Lions are about to add their 22nd Hall of Famer. His bust and his records will be in Canton. His heart will be somewhere else. He’ll voice appreciation for Lions fans and teammates in his speech, but as for the organization, it’ll likely be another public shaming. We can only hope it’s the last.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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