When you take a step back to view Calvin Johnson's march toward NFL history, you realize something stunning.
Johnson had one of the best seasons ever for a receiver last year.
And somehow, he managed to top it.
Johnson obliterated three NFL records and tied another Saturday night, most notably Jerry Rice's mark of 1,848 receiving yards in a season in the Detroit Lions' 31-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Johnson amassed 225 yards on 11 receptions, leaving him with 1,892 yards on 117 catches this season with one game left to play.
If you can think back 12 months ago, you recall that Johnson finished the 2011 season with 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns. The only receiver in NFL history to have a better across-the-board season than that was Randy Moss for the 2003 Minnesota Vikings.
I know Johnson's touchdowns have dropped this season; close observers would note he has been tackled at the 1-yard line a half-dozen times this season. Regardless, to me, the most incredible part of Johnson's tear this season is that it elevated him above a season that already stood as one of the best ever.
The Lions rewarded Johnson last spring with a record-breaking eight-year, $132 million contract. He made the cover of "Madden 13" -- and beat its curse, I might add -- and also graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine's NFL preview. The hype for Johnson in 2012 was unparalleled, and yet he managed to exceed all expectations.
I think that's why Rice, a notoriously proud and competitive man, has been so genuinely accepting of Johnson's pursuit of his record. He understands the pressure Johnson faced, how hard it is to produce history in that environment and what that tells you about Johnson as a player and person.
During the ESPN broadcast Saturday night, Rice said he knows what Johnson "stands for" and added: "He's a hard worker. He got the major contract and he's still hungry, and he wants to get out there and prove to everybody that [he is] the best receiver to ever play the game."
There will be some purists who challenge the legitimacy of Johnson's records this season. NFL rules, after all, favor the passing game like never before. The 1978 move to a 16-game season changed league record-keeping. And, as ESPN analyst Jon Gruden asserted Saturday night, receiving yardage for a 4-11 team is bound to include some "meaningless yards" that "tarnish the record." Via ESPN Stats & Information, 588 of Johnson's receiving yards this season have come when the Lions were either trailing or leading by more than 10 points.
But I would suggest that Johnson is in position to destroy any such argument with another productive game in the Dec. 30 season finale against the Chicago Bears. Johnson is 104 yards away from breaking Charley Hennigan's 51-year-old record for the highest yards-per-game average, a mark that would equalize comparisons between 16- and 14-game seasons. Add an extra 4 yards, and he'll hit the magical 2,000-yard plateau once reserved only for running backs.
Also, it's worth noting that Johnson has eight consecutive 100-yard games -- an NFL record -- as many of his teammates have been injured or were otherwise unavailable. With three fellow receivers on injured reserve and tight end Brandon Pettigrew also sidelined Saturday night, Johnson:
Broke Rice's record
Broke the record for consecutive 100-yard games
Set a record with his fourth consecutive 10-catch game
Tied Michael Irvin's record of 11 100-yard games in a season
Johnson's production amid the Lions' rubble might have been meaningless in terms of winning percentage, but I'm not sure it's fair to hold the team's problems against its only high achiever. Calvin Johnson has followed up an elite season with a record-breaking one. No one can dispute that.