ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Calvin Johnson was 10 years old when Jerry Rice set the NFL record in 1995 for receiving yards in a season.
Johnson says he’s never met Rice, never talked to him and really hasn’t gone back to study tape of the indisputable greatest receiver in football history.
But with 182 yards in the Detroit Lions’ final two games, Johnson will surpass Rice’s single-season mark.
Rice has come out and praised the man they call “Megatron,” but Rice has also made it clear that deep down he doesn’t want to see the record broken.
“Who would?” Johnson said. “You’ve got NFL records, those are big.”
What Rice accomplished that season helped the San Francisco 49ers to an 11-5 record and a division championship. He caught 122 passes for 1,848 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The circumstances are much different for Johnson. The Lions are in the midst of a terribly disappointing 4-10 season heading into Saturday night’s game against Atlanta at Ford Field in Detroit. Johnson has 106 catches for 1,667 yards, but only five touchdowns.
Although Johnson acknowledges he’ll take a lot of pride in setting the record, it would be much more enjoyable for him if the team was having success, too.
“The expectation we had on the year overshadows a lot of things, especially some individual accomplishments,” Johnson said.
With just with 20 more yards, Johnson will break Herman Moore’s team record. Moore had 1,686 yards for the Lions in ’95, the same year as Rice’s feat.
Rice appeared Wednesday on ESPN’s NFL Live show to discuss Johnson’s pursuit.
“You know, you really don’t want anyone to break your record,” Rice said. “But this guy, he’s a hard worker and he knows how to make plays. The guy’s unstoppable. He’s a playmaker. He knows how to run routes. He can out-jump you. He’s explosive downfield.
“So I’ll be the first one to congratulate him … but, no, I don’t want him to break it.”
Rice owns nearly every NFL receiving record known to man, including career receptions (1,549), receiving yards (22,895) and touchdown catches (197).
Johnson, 27 and in his sixth NFL season, has 472 receptions for 7,539 yards and 54 touchdowns.
“I’ll give you one, but you stay away from the rest of my records,” Rice said, half-jokingly, as if he was talking directly to Johnson during the TV interview.
Johnson’s response: “Hey, I appreciate it. I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Asked whether he considers Rice the best receiver ever, Johnson said, “It’s hard to argue that.”
Opponents are doing everything in their power to try to contain Johnson — who is 6-foot-5, 236 pounds — but it’s just not working.
He could become the first player in NFL history with eight consecutive 100-yard receiving games if he reaches 100 again this week. During this seven-game stretch, Johnson has totaled 65 receptions for 1,029 yards and four touchdowns.
Last Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals sometimes lined up two defenders on Johnson right at the line of scrimmage, in what’s referred to as a “vice” coverage. It was similar to how teams try to block the outside gunners sprinting down field to cover punts.
Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could remember seeing that type of coverage only one other time, a decade ago when he was offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. He said Green Bay used a similar scheme to try to hold down Randy Moss.
“It definitely discourages your ability to get a guy the ball,” Linehan said.
Nevertheless, Johnson found a way to make 10 catches for 121 yards against the Cardinals.
The Lions expect that the Falcons could use the same approach. Atlanta has a standout secondary, including two starting safeties, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, who have combined for 10 interceptions.
“We saw the vice on third down (against Arizona),” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “We may see it every snap this week. Every week is a new invention in coverage (on Johnson). I’m kind of used to it. I kind of expect that kind of stuff.”
No matter what opponents try, it just keeps bringing out the competitor in Johnson.
“It’s a will, it’s an attitude, it’s a mentality you’ve got to have,” said Johnson, signed to an eight-year, $132-million contract last March. “You love to compete against the best. Whatever they throw at you, you’re willing to go up and try to beat it.”
While the yardage keeps piling up, Johnson’s touchdown total has declined significantly from 16 a year ago, partly because he’s been tackled six times at the 1-yard line.
It even happened Thursday during practice. According to coach Jim Schwartz, running back Mikel Leshoure went up to Johnson and said, smiling, “I’ll take it from here.”
“As long as we get the touchdown, it doesn’t bother him,” Schwartz said of Johnson, considered one of the more unselfish, humble superstars around.
“I dare say if we were able to win the last two games and he didn’t get the record, he would still be very content and very happy that we won those two games.
“That’s why we signed him to a long-term deal. Not just his talent on the field but how good a guy he is.”