ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The slumping Detroit Lions are rallying around Calvin Johnson, hoping he breaks Jerry Rice’s NFL record for yards receiving in a season.
“It’s definitely something that I take joy in that my teammates are right behind me on this thing,” Johnson said Thursday after catching footballs from a machine in a post-practice drill. “They want me to get it as much as I want to get it.”
The Lions (4-9) don’t have much else to root for this year, entering Sunday’s game at Arizona (4-9) in a matchup of teams tied for the worst record in the NFC. Detroit has dropped five straight and will finish the season with a losing record one year after winning 10 games and breaking the team’s 11-year postseason drought.
That leave Johnson’s shot to make history a potential source of pride for the Lions.
“We have to hang our hat on something this year,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said. “I think it would be awesome for him to do it. I’d love to be able to say I was on the team and helped him do it.”
Despite often facing double- and triple-coverage and losing the other top three players at his position on the team, Johnson has a league-high 1,546 yards receiving. With three games left, he is 303 yards from breaking Rice’s single-season mark of 1,848 yards receiving set in 1995 with the San Francisco 49ers.
“If it happens, that would be fantastic,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely something I’d love to have.”
And, his teammates want him to have it.
Johnson’s talents and humble ways helped him get a $132 million, eight-year contract in the offseason, entering the last season of the deal he got when Detroit drafted him out of Georgia Tech with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He is easy to root for.
“He’s so down to earth,” said tight end Tony Scheffler, one of several Lions to describe him in the exact same way this week. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the janitor or Jim Schwartz, he says hi and bye when you enter and leave the room.
“I’ve seen him before and after he got paid, and nothing has changed. He’s just a great human being and I think he’s the best player in the NFL, which is a pretty remarkable combination.”
Johnson combines size, strength, speed, hands and relentless work ethic in a way few can. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver dubbed Megatron has run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, has done a 45-inch vertical leap and works out constantly, as if his job is in jeopardy.
Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald has arguably been the best at his position over the last several years, but he wouldn’t make that argument. Fitzgerald called Johnson “the best in the business,” and explained why he heaped that kind of praise on an opponent.
“He’s very consistent, does it week in and week out against the most exotic defensive coverages the league has seen,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s the most dynamic player, receiver, since Randy Moss. He really has no physical weaknesses. He does it all.”
This season, he’s had to.
Receivers Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles have all been put on injured reserve. Kris Durham got his first NFL start in last Sunday’s game at Green Bay and the other lackluster options were Mike Thomas, Brian Robiskie, Lance Long and Kassim Osgood.
“Calvin has picked up a lot of slack,” Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We’ve played him at a lot of different positions and I don’t think he gets credit for how versatile he is. He plays probably three or four positions. It’s even real common for him to do that even within a drive.”
Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson doesn’t sound worried. Peterson said he hopes to cover Johnson one on one as much as possible in a challenge he’s been looking forward to since the NFL schedule was released.
“It’s definitely going to be a fun matchup and a matchup I’ve been waiting for pretty much all year,” Peterson said. “I want to see how I match up against one of the top guys in the league.”
Peterson ranked Johnson as the second-best receiver in the NFL, behind Fitzgerald, and boasted that he’s the best cornerback in the NFL.
“Me and Calvin, we’re the same caliber players, just he’s a receiver and I’m a DB,” he said. “He likes the physical aspect of the game and, you know, that’s something I like to do as well. I’m going to challenge him at the line.”
NOTES: Lions DT Nick Fairley (shoulder) and TE Brandon Pettigrew (ankle) didn’t practice Thursday after both were injured against the Packers. … CB Louis Delmas (knee), CB Chris Houston (hamstring) and CB Jacob Lacey (foot) were limited in practice after being held out of Wednesday’s workout because of injuries.