Lions adapting to not having 'safety net' Calvin Johnson on offense

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions' wide receivers were in a meeting a month ago when the inevitable happened. They were watching film, picking up some of the routes they were expected to run this upcoming season, when he popped up on the screen.

He is Calvin Johnson, the now-retired star wide receiver for the Lions over the past decade. The past few months have been a transition for the franchise with Johnson’s retirement after nine seasons, the majority of which he was the No. 1 option for the Detroit offense and one of the top receivers in the NFL.

Instead of ignoring the enormity of having to replace Johnson -- and it’s a topic Detroit has not avoided publicly -- the players openly talked about it as a way to become comfortable with the Lions’ post-Johnson world.

“It’s gotten more comfortable because we’ve had to,” receiver TJ Jones said. “We’ve had to adapt. The first day, we definitely in our receiver room, hey, you know, everyone, we love Calvin, he’s great, we appreciate him, but as a group we have to move forward and learn how to be a receiving corps without Calvin.

“Nothing against him, but that’s just kind of the facts.”

Detroit knows one player won’t replace Johnson’s production or command the attention from opposing defenses that Johnson did every time he ran a route. The Lions know they will need more of a collaborative effort from Golden Tate, Theo Riddick, Eric Ebron, TJ Jones and new signings Marvin Jones and Jeremy Kerley for Detroit’s offense to be successful.

The real adjustment started in that meeting last month among the receiving corps and permeated throughout the rest of the team just as fast. They understand life in the NFL, where rosters change yearly and players -- even Hall of Famers like Johnson -- eventually retire or move on.

The Lions, too, must move on, even though quarterback Matthew Stafford joked he's done so faster than the media when it comes to life without Johnson.

“I’ve been out here practicing without him for a couple days now,” Stafford said. “But to me, it’s every year is different. You have new teammates and you don’t have some of the guys you had last year, and that’s no different this year.

“You just have to prepare to win games, and that starts as soon as possible.”

It began on April 18 when the Lions first met for offseason workouts and continued this week with the team’s first true on-field work since the end of last season, when Johnson walked off the field in Chicago as an NFL player for the last time.

The Lions have been working on installing an offense with some similarities to what they ran before but with new additions put in by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who had essentially a week to put in an offense after he was promoted before Week 8 last year to replace Joe Lombardi.

Cooter added things here and there throughout the second half of last season, but this is the first time he’s been able to fully install his system. And he’s had to do it with the understanding his best player from a season ago is no longer available.

That has resulted in some changes for Detroit, although those potentially were coming anyway with Cooter having a full offseason to prepare.

“With the full year, they can put a little bit more on our plate. With Calvin gone, I mean, there’s a couple plays here and there that were specifically for Calvin, but that’s not saying we can’t still run them with a Marvin or a Golden,” TJ Jones said. “So it’s not really changing the playbook -- it’s more everyone getting used to it and getting used to their spots and knowing where they are supposed to be.”

When they’ve been on the field, the Lions have adjusted to life without Calvin Johnson because they have no other option. If they dwell on it too long, they’ll hurt themselves for 2016 -- and considering Detroit’s losing record last season, they recognize they can’t do that.

Johnson is missed as more than a franchise wide receiver. He was one of the most respected players in the locker room and one of the hardest workers the Lions had. For months, those around the franchise praised him as a person as much as a player.

And that, as much as on the field, is where the Lions are working to move on.

“In the locker room, in the meeting rooms, all the jokes he’ll crack at all the meals. You miss Calvin the person,” TJ Jones said. “On the field, his presence is obviously one of a kind. That safety net we had last year, we’ll have to work through this year.

“More importantly, we all enjoy Calvin more as a person, and him being a great athlete was just another perk of his.”

One Detroit is still working on being without.