ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions receivers are tired of hearing about Calvin Johnson. They've spent the last few months talking about his unexpected retirement, the impact of his loss and how they'll somehow manage without the man known as Megatron. It's the type of offseason scrutiny that can get maddening for a team trying to move forward. The only thing more disturbing is the questions that will come if they really can't survive without him.
The bad news for the Lions is that there really is no way to replace Johnson, who produced 731 receptions, 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns in what should be a Hall of Fame career. The good news is that his departure opens the door for several other weapons on this team to prove what they have to offer. Johnson spent most of his nine NFL seasons being the dominant target on a squad that needed him to play at an elite level every week. This year's Lions will have to rely on an assortment of talents to divide the responsibility of making Detroit's offense dangerous again.
That was the overriding message head coach Jim Caldwell delivered after a recent minicamp practice, when asked about how his team will cope.
"You have to remember that Calvin didn't play every game, specifically [in 2014], when Golden Tate caught 99 balls," Caldwell said. "In fact, you'll see the distribution be like it was last year [when] Calvin had over 80 catches, Golden had over 80 and Theo Riddick caught 80 ... In terms of where the ball is going, you won't see a difference. Now, as far as the coverages we see, that's where things will be probably change."
The Lions definitely became quite accustomed to defenses gearing their coverage to control Johnson wherever he lined up on the field. Even when that happened, the six-time Pro Bowler was good enough to beat two or even three defenders to the football. Now balance will be stressed even more within the Lions' attack. As Caldwell noted, Detroit had been trying to create more of that in the system before Johnson ever left town.
Tate becomes the obvious top target, as he's caught 189 passes in his first two seasons with the team after coming over from Seattle. The Lions also signed a couple veteran receivers (Marvin Jones and Jeremy Kerley), while bigger contributions are expected from tight end Eric Ebron and running backs like Riddick and Ameer Abdullah. The one common denominator with these players? They all can do something with the ball in their hands.
That doesn't mean quarterback Matthew Stafford won't be launching bombs downfield as often as he did to Johnson. It's just more likely that the Lions will have more variations to the looks they show opponents. Caldwell has made it clear that he wants to alter tempo -- "One of the things that is important is having an offense with different rhythms," he said -- but it's also apparent that Detroit could function best when Stafford is making quick decisions and giving his receivers a chance to operate.
"The name of the game is getting first downs and touchdowns," Tate said. "You don't always have to throw the ball downfield to get those. If you can throw it for 3 yards and pick up 15 on it, that's a first down. Who cares how you get it? It's hard to see it at this time of year -- because we're not hitting -- but I'm excited to see what happens when our guys get loose. We can do a lot with the ball in our hands."
There already appears to be a consensus that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is running a system that should make everybody happy. He produced impressive results after getting promoted to that job following the midseason firing of Joe Lombardi last October. Before that point, Detroit had gone 1-6 with Stafford looking completely lost. The Lions lost their very next game -- to the Kansas City Chiefs in London -- but then they had a bye week that allowed Cooter to settle into his new role. Over the final eight games of the season, Detroit went 6-2 with Stafford throwing 19 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
The upside here is the Lions now have a full offseason to learn Cooter's system. Tate already likes what it means for him, as he will play one receiver spot in the offense instead of moving around to various positions. Stafford and Cooter also clearly have what Caldwell terms "a synergy" and that seems to be enough to keep the quarterback from making the reckless decisions that have plagued him in the past. On top of all that, Johnson's departure means the Lions' offense has to be smarter all the way around. There is no Megatron to bail them out with a big play when all else fails.
The other benefit of Johnson's retirement is that it clearly has given this team some added motivation. Jones admitted he's already so tired of being asked about Johnson that he said, "I don't even answer the questions anymore." Tate also told a reporter earlier this year that the only time he discusses Johnson is when the media raises the topic. You best believe the Lions are eager to show that their former teammate wasn't the entire team, that there are other reasons to be excited about this offense moving forward.
When asked what this system should look like at its best, Jones said, "All of us flying around making great plays. That goes to the ability of having guys who can do a lot of different things. We have guys who can get it and make moves after the catch. We have guys who can go deep. When we're explosive, you'll see everybody making their plays and we have a lot of guys who can do that."
That is exactly what the Lions are pinning their hopes on this season. They wholeheartedly believe that the loss of a superstar opens the door for some unheralded talents to prove how much they've grown. That might not be enough to quiet the talk about what life will be like without Calvin Johnson in the near future. But it's also an approach that could yield more positive results than anybody can imagine right now.