This summer, we're looking closer at what went right and wrong during the 2012 Detroit Lions' season. In the coming weeks, we'll count down the top 10 plays which made a difference in the team's performance and record last season. Today, we finally hit the top spot with an examination of number 1.
Few things went right for the Detroit Lions in 2012, but the things that did revolved strictly around Calvin Johnson. Despite personal injuries and other troubles around him, the wide receiver continued to show his all-world talent, and that was on display most in late a December meeting against the Atlanta Falcons which saw an NFL record once considered unbreakable fall.
The results of the Lions 31-18 loss to the Falcons were usual and largely inconsequential. There was a handful of blown plays, inopportune turnovers and missed opportunities from Detroit's perspective. As was the usual case last year, an injury prone secondary got carved up, and allowed the Lions to be embarrassed on national television. The Falcons, headed for the playoffs, ended up wrapping up the number one seed easily.
Despite the penultimate embarrassment to finish the season, there was a singular ray of hope for the Detroiters. Johnson was closing in on breaking Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season, and needed a big performance in the final two home games of the year to do so. Going up against what would prove to be the 23rd ranked passing defense in the NFL, Johnson got off to a hot start and never looked back in shattering Rice's mark of 1,848.
On the second series of the game, Matthew Stafford found him for 49 yards. Then, after a fumble caused that drive to fizzle and the Falcons took a 7-0 lead, Johnson was discovered again for 18 yards. In the second quarter, gains of 20, 5 and 22 yards put him well over 100 on the night by halftime. The record seemed destined to fall in a hurry in the third quarter.
It would have to wait until the fourth, however. Johnson grabbed two passes for 47 yards in the final frame, giving him 1,892 yards and just enough breathing room to edge out Rice's long time record. Johnson provided his father with the legendary football in a special moment, and would take dead aim at the first 2,000 receiving yard season in the final week of the year.
Though he would fall short of that mark against Chicago and end up with 1,964 yards on the year, Johnson proved why Lions fans should now always have hope. After signing a mega contract extension the previous offseason, it was later revealed that Johnson played out the 2012 season with broken fingers. The man with broken fingers had played through pain for a bad team, shattering Rice's record. Clearly, that's someone determined to win who also happens to love football. At a time of year where he could have simply given up, Johnson refused to and stayed in the games, playing the season out.
After watching Atlanta put the finishing touches on their spectacular season, though it was hard to do, Lions fans had to have proper perspective. If Detroit was able to surround Johnson with enough offseason help, perhaps they could be a team to contend with in the NFC. The wide receiver is talented enough to do nearly everything on his own, but a stronger supporting cast on both sides of the ball was necessary. In an active offseason, Martin Mayhew added players like Reggie Bush, Glover Quin, Israel Idonije and Ziggy Ansah, hoping to adequately supplement Johnson's superior talent.
Teammates and coaches alike still maintain a 2,000 yard season isn't out of the equation for Johnson, but if the team wants to achieve playoff success, it will probably have to be. With Bush now ideally sharing the load, the Lions should be much more balanced, dangerous offense in 2013 than 2012. In spite of many steps backward then, though, Detroit's best receiver still managed to break a 17 year-old record with broken fingers by himself.
That's certainly reason for tiny rays of Honolulu Blue hope to shine through the clouds heading towards kickoff on September 8.
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