Calvin Johnson is chasing Jerry Rice, and a whole generation of cornerbacks can tell you how hard that is. Rice was not just the best receiver ever. He was the best receiver ever by a wide margin. We can argue for many hours, over many beers, about the best quarterback, running back and defensive player in NFL history. The argument about the best receiver lasts 30 seconds. But Johnson is getting closer to Rice.
Johnson needs 421 yards in the Detroit Lions' final four games to pass Rice's single-season record of 1,848. But why stop there? Would Rice have stopped there? Hell, no. Rice would have gone home and run up and down hills with a refrigerator full of steaks on his back, then tried to break his own record the next season.
And this is the challenge of chasing Jerry Rice. It's like chasing a master criminal: You have to think like him.
"I was telling Calvin," Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson says, "This record he's chasing, if you want it, you've gotta eat it, you gotta live it, you gotta breathe it -- everything about it. If you do that, you can get it.
"Jerry Rice, when he broke it, he lived it."
On Thursday I said Johnson, "Do you have a goal to be the best receiver ever?"
"Yeah. No doubt," he said.
These are strong words for a man who has been called humble so often it might as well be his nickname. But Johnson made this decision a few years ago. His personal trainer asked him over breakfast: "Do you want to be great, or do you want to have potential?"
Says Johnson: "I figured potential is just a word for 'Haven't done (bleep) yet,' basically."
He said he wanted to be great. He told Jefferson the same thing: Push me to be great. And what is great? It has different meanings for each of us. For a child with a crippling genetic condition, great can mean walking onto the school bus. For a walk-on at a major-conference school, great means getting on the field.
For Johnson, great means being the best ever.
"God gave me the ability, so why not?" he says. "Go out there and play for Him. Maximize the talent he gave you."
Several years into his career with the San Francisco 49ers, after he was pretty widely acknowledged as the best player at his position, Rice said there were still doubters. He said he heard them. How many doubters were there, really? It doesn't matter. What matters is he heard them.
Johnson surely has his doubters, too. You can hear them now: The record does not mean as much now because this is a wild passing era. The doubters are flat wrong.
Sure, this is an unprecedented passing era, but it is not an unprecedented receiving era.
Quarterbacks are spreading the ball around more than they ever have. They are throwing more to tight ends and slot receivers.
The year that Rice set his record, 1995, there were 23 1,000-yard receivers; last year there were 19. In 1995, there were 10 1,250-yard receivers; last year there were nine. In 1995, there were four 1,500-yard receivers; last year there were three. In 1995, there were two 1,750-yard receivers -- Isaac Bruce of the Rams finished just 67 yards behind Rice.
Bruce's total was the second-highest in history. Johnson needs 354 yards to pass him. But then, what does this matter? Johnson is not chasing Isaac Bruce.
To be the best ever, you have to study film. You must know the defense. Seems simple, right? But Johnson has a problem: He studies film all week, and then on Sunday, it's like he studied for a Spanish exam and the questions are in Chinese.
"You get to the game and they are doing something totally different," he says. "It is literally just to stop you, to take you out of the game."
Do you want to hear the latest scheme? It's ridiculous, but here goes: Johnson lines up near the goal line, and the defense assigns two men to stand on the line of scrimmage and harass him, the way they harass the gunner on the punt team. It's called a vise.
Why would a defensive coordinator give up a tackler in the middle of the field when a short run would mean a touchdown? Well, have you watched Johnson?
Calvin Johnson met LeBron James once. It was in the tunnel at the Palace of Auburn Hills after a Pistons-Cavaliers playoff game in 2007. James was already a world-famous superstar. Johnson had not yet played an NFL game. Johnson mostly remembers how big LeBron is ("He is tall as hell!") and they haven't met since. But Calvin Johnson is getting closer to LeBron James, too.
He sees a player so big, fast and skilled that he should dominate every game, and he feels a kinship.
"People on TV were watching LeBron, like, 'Does he know if he drives to the hole every time, he is going to get fouled or he is going to make the bucket?'" Johnson says. "It was kind of like that with me (as a rookie). My confidence wasn't on that level where I could go out there every Sunday and say 'I'm gonna kill today. Whoever is across from me, I'm gonna beat 'em.'"
He did what Rice did, two decades earlier. He mastered every route, every cut and juke and subtle fake. He learned to catch every ball and to play through injuries. This year he has had an injured foot, an injured ankle and two injured knees. He goes through his fingers like he is surveying tornado damage:
"This one won't straighten out. This one hurts to catch. This one's messed up. This one's coming back -- this one was real swollen, this is getting better though ..."
He can deal with these injuries because he has mastered his craft. I mentioned something another Detroit icon, Miguel Cabrera, told me in October: When he is hurting, he plays better, because his concentration is sharper. Johnson says, "I agree with that. Totally. It hurts so you gotta be that much more attuned."
How attuned is he? Well, doesn't this sound like LeBron James these days?
"You can play free, and you're smart enough to know what the situations are," Johnson says. "You get to that point where you fully have confidence in what you're doing. You can take your game to another level."
Johnson needs 106 yards per game in his final four games to pass Rice. He has averaged 119 for the season. He has averaged 168 in his last five games. He looks at that 168-yard average and thinks: It should be higher.
"Man, I go back to the last three weeks, there's plays that, if we made those plays, I'd be looking for the 2,000-yard mark instead of Jerry Rice's record," Johnson says. "It's been plays we just missed, or just an overthrow, or just off my fingertips. Especially the last few weeks, you're like, damn!"
He looks at his 34-yard game against the Bears earlier this year, his 46-yard game against the Seahawks, his 54-yard game against the Vikings, and he says he understands that defenses are tough and sometimes the yards won't be there ... but he does not really mean this. He does not understand.
He thinks even on his worst day, he should have 100 yards receiving. That is greatness, viewed through the filter of his talent.
"It's easy for me to do that," he says. "That's the minimum. That's how I feel about it. You can easily come back and average 100 a game. You can make that up on the backside. But you want to be consistent: boom, boom, boom, every week, you know what you're gonna get."
There was a little acknowledgment of his own dominance in that comment, buried in the self-flagellation: "You can make that up on the backside." It makes sense, right? If you have a bad game or two you can make it up on the backside with a few 200-yard games.
Amazingly, this is exactly what Johnson has done. Look at his last 16 games, going back to the end of last season, including his playoff game in New Orleans.
In those 16 games, Johnson has caught 122 passes for 2,199 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Yeah, yeah. We know: Only 11 touchdowns. What can he say? He is trying to get better.