Thursday, December 13, 2012

Detroit Lions Must Be Careful not to Waste Calvin Johnson's Talent Like Barry Sanders'

Waste (verb) Use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.

Usually, I'm not the biggest fan of starting literary pieces with dictionary definitions. However, after watching NFL Network's presentation of Barry Sanders: A Football Life, that particular word found in Webster's book is the one which I keep culling from my mind.

At times, I was nearly moved to tears watching Sanders speak about his experiences. Why? Though humility would cause Sanders himself to vehemently disagree with my assessment, his time in Detroit seemed like such a tragic waste of a wonderful career. Sure, Lions' fans were delighted by the star running back's talent, but I feel as if Sanders himself didn't get enough out of the experience to feel completely satisfied. Athletes do need to taste team success from time to time in order to feel fulfillment, and the Lions should be taken to court for not doing everything they could to win titles for the best running back in the game.

That, in part, is what I believe contributed to Sanders' abrupt burnout in 1999. Despite everything said to the contrary, the extended losing and organizational irreverence to it had to wear on such a hardened competitor. Fortunately for the Lions, Sanders remained loyal despite everything that occurred, never requesting a trade or lashing out, remaining committed to his adopted city and fans. That earned him the
respect of everybody in football.

Unfortunately, the Lions could have history repeating itself again with Calvin Johnson. The receiver's talent is so immense, the discussion in NFL circles has shifted to who's the second best wide receiver in the game today, with the assumption that number one is no debate; Johnson is simply the best. Much like Sanders a decade ago, Johnson humbly rewrites the record books while constantly giving highlight film editors reason to re-rack their tapes.

As a competitor, he's also probably fighting the same quiet internal battles that Sanders fought for years while playing with the Lions and going nowhere. Imagine their frustration. Johnson can put up 211 yards in a playoff game with two touchdowns and still lose. This year, he could shatter Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record—numbers that Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss and Hines Ward didn't touch—while being forced to sit at home on Wild Card weekend. Like Johnson, Sanders could rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, become the NFL's all-time leading rusher and then get unceremoniously bounced in the first round. With players like this to build around, the Lions should be hosting playoff games and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy instead of remaining a laughingstock.

Yet, as we know, football is the ultimate team sport. Before Johnson has his own burnout, the Lions have to do whatever they can to surround him with a capable team. A poignant part of Sanders' documentary revolved around the running back's joy in a 1991 playoff game against Dallas. Though he was being shut down early, Sanders didn't care because his team was winning. The same traits are evident in Johnson, and were even on display as recently as Sunday night. Johnson excitedly applauded the efforts of unknown receiver Kris Durham as the offense was moving early in Green Bay, despite the fact that he wasn't getting targeted. At that point, Johnson didn't care. The team was excelling together.

Martin Mayhew locked Johnson up with a mega deal last offseason. Now, it's his responsibility to properly build around him this offseason so that sins of the past are avoided. Give Johnson a defense he can count on. Provide him a consistent running game. Do whatever it takes to win completely. The last thing anybody wants to see is another summer of discontent akin to 1999.

True greatness seems to visit Detroit football only once every 20 years, and as most Lions' fans would painfully tell you, it's the most terrible resource to waste.

Max DeMara is the managing editor of Lions 101. You can find him on his personal Twitter account @SportsGuyTheMax or on this site's Twitter @detroitlions101

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