Calvin Johnson does things that few receivers ever could, including Jerry Rice, but let’s cool it with the GOAT talk already — that’s “Greatest Of All Time” for all you scoring at home.
Yes, 329 is a lot of receiving yards for one man in one game — second most all time. And 1,964 yards is even more, albeit over the course of a season — the most all time. But six and a half seasons isn’t quite enough time to start sculpting a bust for him in Canton or elevating him to the top of the all-time receiver rankings.
Johnson’s freakish frame (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and incredible measurables — 4.35 40-yard dash and 42-inch vertical jump — are more than any receiver, or athlete for that matter, could ever ask for. It gives him an incredible advantage over defensive backs, allows him to make plays that most receivers couldn’t even fathom and even led to the Megatron nickname. That combination alone might make him the most athletic or physically gifted receiver ever to don a set of pads, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the greatest.
Rice is widely regarded as the greatest wide receiver in NFL history — a title he wasn’t given but earned over time. His career spanned 20 seasons and three decades, and he made a significant impact almost right up until the very end. Rice caught 100 passes or more in four different seasons. He led the league in receiving yards in six seasons, eclipsing the 1,500-yard mark four times, and managed double-digit touchdowns nine times, including a streak of seven in a row from 1989 to 1995.
When Rice finally decided to hang up the cleats in 2004, he held almost every relevant receiving record. Over 20 NFL seasons, Rice had 1,549 receptions, 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns — all three are best all time. Each of those records have been safe without as much as a threat since ’04, although Johnson might be the first legitimate challenge he’ll face. Randy Moss and Terrell Owens both seemed likely to vie for the top spot in yards and touchdowns, but ego eventually got in the way for both of them. Rice never had that issue and, surprisingly, neither does Johnson.
Johnson is more mature than Moss and he isn’t as self obsessed as TO. His skill set is just as good if not better than both Moss and Owens, but he also has the focus and personal ambition that Rice possessed, which is why, unlike either of them, one day he could be the GOAT.
Through his first six seasons, Johnson’s numbers are just about on par with Rice (92), aside from a few key categories. The two played the exact same number of games (88), had just one 100-catch season, gained nearly the same exact number of yards and each of their career-long receptions went for 96 yards.
Take a look at a full layout of their core career statistics through six seasons below.
Rice (1985-1990): 446 catches, 7,866 yards (89.3 yards per game) and 79 TDs
Johnson (2007-2012): 488 catches, 7,836 yards (89.04 yards per game) and 54 TDs
Apart from the clear difference in receiving touchdowns, where Rice has a commanding 25-score lead, the only other real difference between the two comes outside of the normal 16-game schedule. Through six seasons, Rice had already played in 11 playoff games and won two Super Bowls. In that same span, Johnson has played in just one playoff game, albeit an impressive one (12 catches, 221 yards and two touchdowns).
It’s difficult to compare the two on that basis, since Johnson was drafted into a rebuilding Lions franchise that took a few years to come of age while Rice landed with a team that was coming fresh off a Super Bowl win, but there is no measure of success quite like the postseason. Now that Matthew Stafford seems to be settling into his role as a team leader and the defense has some core pieces in place, maybe Megatron will finally get his chance at a ring or two. But he just continues to fall behind Rice with each passing year.
Johnson doesn’t need to win three Super Bowls or hold all of the NFL receiving records in order to overtake Rice as the proverbial GOAT. The talent and numbers are there, but he does need to be the best of his generation for a little bit longer before that debate can even legitimized.