Calvin Johnson's targets, 'garbage yards'

Our Wild Week 17 was so busy that we never got a chance to circle back on the historic Week 16 of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. So on this final Saturday morning of the NFL regular season, let's follow up on two noteworthy angles.

First, we should establish some context for the intensity with which the Lions have helped Johnson pursue the NFL record for receiving yards in a season. As the chart shows, Johnson already has been targeted more times in the regular season than any player in the past five seasons. (ESPN Stats & Information's database of video analysis goes back as far as 2008.)

In fact, if the Lions target Johnson eight times Sunday against the Chicago Bears, he'll eclipse the 20-game total -- including the playoffs -- of Larry Fitzgerald in 2008 and the 19-game total of Wes Welker in 2011. That should give you a pretty good idea of how frequently the Lions have thrown Johnson's way this season relative to a five-year sample of NFL play.

(We should also point out that Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall has been targeted 175 times, the fourth-highest regular-season total over the past five years. If the Bears throw the same number of passes his way Sunday as they have averaged this season -- 11.6 -- he will finish with more regular-season targets over the past five years than anyone not named Calvin Johnson.)

The frequency of Johnson's targets, combined with the Lions' 4-11 record, has drawn the inevitable discussion of whether he has benefited from "garbage yards" that came during portions of games that were not close. As we discussed last weekend, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden asserted that Johnson had gained some "meaningless yards" this season that "tarnish the record."

There are a number of problems here, including how to establish a reliable parameter for "garbage yards." Once that happens, Johnson's "garbage yards" aren't relevant until you compare them to other receivers and also look at how his "non-garbage yards" measure up as well.

We've noted that Johnson has totaled 588 receiving yards in situations where the Lions either led by at least 10 points or trailed by 10 points in a game. That's the highest total in the NFL, but his 1,304 yards when the point differential is less than 10 points is also the highest total in the league. So if you want, you could argue that Johnson has been the NFL's most productive receiver in close games.

In the end, I would point you toward Bill Barnwell's thoughtful analysis and discussion of the topic earlier this week over at Grantland.com. Barnwell wrote that "you can make 'garbage time' mean anything you like, and eventually, you'll probably come to some sort of split that tells the story you want to tell."

To me, it's wrong to assume that receivers on the most successful teams only catch "meaningful" passes. Johnson has earned his targets this season, especially considering the exotic defenses he has faced, and his yards should be considered no less legitimate than any other receiver's.