The Calvin Problem: Qualifying Greatness In A Quantitative World

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Calvin Johnson Is The Exception To The Rule When It Comes To Canton!


I struggle to find words to preface the question I am about to ask. It is not an uncommon one, but it’s worth asking again, because I don’t think there’s ever really been a satisfactory answer to it. Before I ask it, I’d like you, dear reader, to consider how we think of football players in today’s age.

How have the religions of analytics and fantasy football driven the narrative of the game and the players who play it? In the post-Moneyball world, we’ve tried to make sports smarter. So, we began to view sports through the prism of statistics. Numbers have become the opiate of the masses as a result.

We initially sought comfort and meaning in them, and now they have consumed our way of thinking. “Stats don’t lie,” is a piece of propaganda that has been disseminated by the likes of ESPN for our consumption. The same outlet that profits off your continued enrollment in their fantasy leagues wants you to think quantitatively, not qualitatively – how coincidental. Statistics, particularly advanced metrics, have been commodified. In some instances, they’ve become a racket.

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Consider the fact that, until recently, Pro Football Focus was gouging subscribers for $249 a month for their ‘premium content.’ Just a few years ago, they were about the cost of a fast food combo meal. The proof is in the pudding: we are obsessed with the numbers. But, the tidy conclusions of these math wizards sometimes fail to tell the story of the magic on the field. With that said, I will now ask my question:

How can you possibly exclude Calvin Johnson from the Hall of Fame?

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Playoff success, individual statistics and accolades, career longevity: the triumvirate of Canton.

The man who seemingly defied the laws of physics shall one day defy the dogma of the Canton gatekeepers, and gain access to their hallowed halls. Calvin Johnson is not bound by their rules.

He is the exception. He always has been.

For how can you tell the story of the game and omit him from it? How do you narrate the changing landscape of the NFL – its evolution into a passing league – without ever mentioning the monstrous receivers and tight ends that have come to dominate it? And Calvin was the granddaddy of them all.

While everybody else played chess to stop him, Megatron played Madden. Either a genetically engineered lab experiment or a freakish aberration of nature, Johnson was, and still is, the prototype for receivers. He was a physical force the likes of which the league has never seen. Teams routinely double-covered him. The Arizona Cardinals did it with Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. The Seahawks did it with Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. When a team deploys two All-Pro defenders in an attempt to stop you, and only manage to slow you down, you are on another plane entirely.

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Calvin Johnson cannot be defined by stats. Not by his 6’5”, 240 lb. frame, or his 4.35 second 40-yard dash, or his 41” inch vertical, or even by his NFL single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards. He breaks the algorithm.

So, is Calvin to blame for zero playoff wins in nine years? Is his relatively short career an indictment on him, or was it the result of a historically inept franchise driving him into the ground physically and mentally? Because for all his talent, the odds were almost always stacked against Calvin. The lone bright spot on so many teams generally bereft of talent, he couldn’t be stopped. He was unhindered by the inadequacy of his teammates and unfazed by the focus of his opponents.

A small part of the legend of Michael Jordan was that he would tell his opponents what he was about to do, and they still wouldn’t be able to stop it. In essence, that’s what Calvin Johnson did game in and game out. Opposing teams knew the ball was coming to him, and even the gift of prescience was insufficient. He was that dominant.

You can dismiss his case by pointing to zero wins. You can cite his lack of longevity. And you can reference the leaderboards that bear not his name. But to summarize his career that way would be incredibly blasphemous and a disservice greatest receivers to ever play the game.

So why else should he be denied entry to the Hall of Fame? He was already condemned once when the Lions made him the second overall pick in 2007. Shall he be subjected to double jeopardy once he’s eligible for enshrinement? The answer is no. Calvin’s martyrdom, like Barry’s, shall not go unrewarded. One day – and that day will be soon – he’ll defy all the odds one last time.

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