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Lions QB Matthew Stafford: Life without Calvin Johnson will be different

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When Matthew Stafford was throwing the ball to Calvin Johnson during Week 17 against the Chicago Bears last season, the Detroit Lions quarterback thought it might be Johnson’s final game.

Stafford just didn’t know for sure.

“I thought it had a chance to be,” Stafford said Tuesday on the second day of Lions offseason workouts. “But I wasn’t 100 percent positive. I’m glad he had a sweet game.”

Johnson had one of his best games of the 2015 season against the Bears in Chicago, catching 10 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Stafford said there was not a concerted effort to get Johnson the ball often during what turned out to be Johnson's final game -- like the Lakers did with Kobe Bryant in his finale last week -- but that it often came more naturally because Johnson was the No. 1 option in many plays anyway.

The fact that Chicago left Johnson in coverage to have a bunch of catches and pick up a bunch of yards ended up being a bonus. So forcing the ball to Johnson was not a necessity in the finale.

Johnson officially retired in March, leaving Stafford without his top receiving target for the first time in his career. Stafford said he doesn’t know how long the post-Johnson adjustment period might end up being, but it is just one of the changes the Lions are going to make under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.

Cooter was promoted to offensive coordinator in the middle of last season, so this is the first full offseason Stafford and Cooter will be able to work together to implement a plan.

“It’s obviously different,” Stafford said. “But we have some new changes coming in on offense anyway as far as calls and things of that nature, just really trying to solidify what Jim Bob and I want to do on offense. More focused on that than anything at this point, just trying to get our guys as ready to play as we possibly can.

“Obviously it’ll be different on the field on Sundays. It’s different in the locker room not having [Johnson] and all that kind of stuff, but it’s the NFL. You get new teammates every year. Not all of them are the caliber of Calvin, there’s no question about that, but we got to move on and find the way for us to be as good as we possibly can.”

One of the bigger differences might come Sundays, when teams will be less likely to change defensive schemes because of Johnson's presence on the field. Opposing teams tried to throw varying looks at Stafford and Johnson, almost consistently offering double-teams or shaded safeties to help lessen the impact of the former All-Pro.

“I expect that what I look at on tape will now actually be what I see on Sundays, which is quite different than what it has been for the last seven years,” Stafford said. “So that’ll be a positive.”

Stafford is playing in an offense with no clear-cut No. 1 receiver at this point, one of the multitude of changes that will occur for Detroit’s offense.

Stafford didn’t want to go into specifics of what will change, although he said new route combinations and packages will be part of it. Detroit started implementing some of this last season when Cooter was promoted, as the Lions were essentially learning bits and pieces of a new offense on the fly during the second half of the 2015 season.

While Stafford and Cooter have similar football visions, they don’t always agree. But there does seems to be an understanding of what they want to do and what they don’t.

“He likes some stuff that I’m not comfortable with, and I’m comfortable with some stuff that he doesn’t like, and that’s the way it goes,” Stafford said. “You pick your battles and go from there. But it’s just been a good rapport, and we’ll continue to work to try and be as good as we can on offense.”

But life without Calvin Johnson is different, and he has clearly been missed by the Lions players.

“It’s very strange,” safety Glover Quin said. “Obviously, a guy like Calvin, what he did, what he meant to the franchise, to the city, to the team, not having him here is different.

“But that’s the life of the NFL. Guys leave every year, either retirement or going to different teams or contract situations. So you kind of learn to deal with it and you just understand that, ‘Hey, man, just got to go out and step up and do more.’ That’s really what it boils down to.”