THEY MAY tell this story at the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday. Are we hyping it too much for you? Sorry. We will try not to do that. It's just that this summer, after Peyton Manning left the Colts for Denver, Matthew Stafford was on the Internet, "just fooling around one day," says the Lions quarterback. He looked up the NFL records that Manning shares with receiver Marvin Harrison.
Manning completed 953 passes to Harrison, for 12,766 yards and 112 touchdowns. They are the most productive pass-catch duo in league history. The numbers are staggering. Stafford was impressed but not staggered.
"I remember thinking to myself, That's a hell of a number ..." Stafford says, "... but there's a chance."
So far Stafford has completed 163 passes to his teammate Calvin Johnson, for 2,696 yards and 25 touchdowns. But they have only played 28 games together. Stafford is 24 and coming off a 5,000-yard passing season, one of four quarterbacks in history to reach that plateau. Johnson is 26, and last year he led the league in receiving yards, catches of more than 20 yards and receiving first downs. He led the NFC in touchdowns.
Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Next thing you know we'll be comparing Johnson with Jerry Rice, the best receiver ever, and maybe the best player ever, which would be ridiculous and unfair and....
Hey, did you know that Rice holds the single-season record, with 1,848 receiving yards? Last season Johnson had 1,681, the seventh-highest total ever. And he sees that not as a ceiling but as a new floor for him.
"I feel I need 100 yards every game, at least," Johnson says. "That would put me at 1,600 yards every season."
Can he become the league's first 2,000-yard receiver?
"I don't put that out of reach at all," Johnson says. "I wouldn't say that's my primary goal, but it's definitely possible."
From the owner to the last man on the roster, the Lions believe Johnson and Stafford can set records and win Super Bowls. And they believe all this hype partly because Stafford and Johnson don't even care about hype. "Those guys are premium players," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz says, "but they grind it out like they're trying to make the team."
There is a chance. Those words have not been uttered seriously around the Lions much for the last, oh, 50 years. You think the Bengals have a lousy history? Well, since 1980, Cincinnati has played in two Super Bowls. Since 1957, Detroit has won one playoff game.
But now ...
"I feel with Calvin and Matthew, we have a chance to win every game," says vice chairman Bill Ford Jr., whose family has owned the Lions since 1963. "Even if we're down, we have a chance to come back in every game."
Those comebacks start with Stafford, but the franchise comeback began with Johnson, who must be on God's fantasy team. He is 6'5" and 236 pounds of speed, athleticism, coordination, discipline and holy good graciousness.
Lions receiver Nate Burleson says Johnson is so big that "he gets up in sections." Burleson, incorrigibly garrulous, recently compared Johnson with receiving stars Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald, All-Pro running backs Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, current NBA star Kevin Durant, former NBA star Shawn Kemp, track legend Usain Bolt and The Incredible Hulk. All in a single interview.
Johnson says he can throw a football 70 yards in the air, "easy.... I could step out there right now and toss that thing." Pressed for his other skills, Johnson says, "I play table tennis very well." Somewhere the Chinese table tennis team just got very nervous.
Johnson is so gifted at football that he seems as if he could win a game by himself. But he has proof that he can't. In his second season the Lions were the first team in league history to finish 0--16, an achievement that seemed both preposterous and predictable. If anybody would finish 0--16, it had to be Detroit.
The entire '08 season, opponents employed the same 3-6-2 defensive scheme: Three guys covering Johnson, six guys rushing the quarterback and two guys laughing hysterically. Still, he caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and a league-high 12 touchdowns. Considering the circumstances, those were exceptional numbers. But Johnson looks back and says, "I was just out there playing off natural talent."
He vowed he would become a complete player. Receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, a wideout for 13 seasons in the NFL, emphasized the nuances of his position. Johnson learned to use double moves against press coverage, to use his hands to fight for the ball and to run with greater control so that his cuts would be sharper.
Now the most talented receiver in the league is one of its most versatile. Johnson finishes his blocks in practice. He tries to run perfect routes in training camp even when he knows he won't get the ball. He proudly says, "I haven't slipped [on] one of my routes in a long time."
Burleson played with Moss in Minnesota for two years and figured he would never see anything like him again. "I was set on the fact there is nobody that can track the ball like [Moss], run past guys—his ability to turn his speed on and off was the best I ever saw," Burleson says. "Then I come here and see Calvin, who is a stronger version—a guy who doesn't turn down hits, who doesn't slide when the hit's coming. And he blocks."
Here is a story nobody will ever tell about Moss. It happened last year in Denver on the day before Halloween. Johnson thought a Broncos linebacker had given him a cheap shot. He went back to his teammates and demanded that he get to line up in the slot, so he could hit the guy back.
"He was as serious as a heart attack," Burleson says. "He went the next play and put his shoulder in the chest of the linebacker."
Later in the Lions' 45--10 rout Johnson caught a pass and had a clear path to the end zone when he saw D.J. Williams coming toward him. Johnson turned and bowled over the Denver linebacker. He ended up down inside the one-yard-line. "I'm like, Yo, feel free to go score with that thing," Stafford says. "He's like, Man, I love the contact. I just want to show him."
Johnson is a receiving star for the post-Ochocinco NFL, a quiet man who sees the fun in fundamentals. He is polite to the media but often unrevealing. Former teammate Roy Williams nicknamed him Megatron when he was a rookie, but Johnson never refers to himself in the third person, as in, "The Packers think they can stop Megatron, but Megatron can't be stopped."
His talent earned him a $132 million extension in the off-season, $60 million of it guaranteed. His grounded nature is why the Lions so happily gave it to him. After he signed the contract, Johnson walked out for a press conference. When it was over, he returned to the room where he signed the contract and returned the chairs to their original place under a conference room table.
"You're not taking much risk with Calvin," Ford says. "There is always injury risk, but there is no on-field [behavioral] risk and there is no off-field risk."
There was a risk, however, Johnson would decide the Lions were hopeless and leave. That's why the most instructive moment of that 0--16 season occurred in December 2008.
The Lions were three losses away from securing their place among the game's mortals. The Colts were on their way to their typical 12--4 Peyton Manning--era record. Lions executive Tom Lewand, now the team's president, and Colts executive Bill Polian were chatting about the gap between the teams, and Polian mentioned Manning.
"The difference between you guys and us is number 18," Polian said. "With him, we're always in the game."
HYPE? HEY, it's better than pretending the hype doesn't exist, right? How many times have you seen a team use a top pick on a quarterback, pay him crazy money and then insist he is not a savior?
That 0--16 season brought the Lions the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. They used it on Stafford, who came to training camp and threw so hard that the ball snapped Johnson's thumbs back, damaging the ligaments.
"My theory is, the faster I get it in their hands, the more time they've got to run with it," Stafford says with a smile. "So that's what I go for ... whether they like it or not."
His arm rivals any in the league, but that is not the only reason the Lions drafted him. They also thought he could handle the scrutiny. He has been a football star since middle school. He was one of the top recruits in the country. He started at Georgia as a true freshman. Nothing seemed too big for him—not even the challenge of lifting one of the worst organizations in pro sports.
Oddly, Stafford proved himself to his teammates when he was just another guy on the team, a youngster who missed 19 of his first 32 games because of shoulder injuries. He studied his backup, Shaun Hill, who does not have nearly as much natural talent as Stafford but has forged a long NFL career by managing games and making smart decisions. He studied in meetings as if he would start, even when he knew he wouldn't play. He finished a game against the Browns after injuring his shoulder. While fans and media wondered if he would be healthy long enough to justify the No. 1 pick, the Lions never wavered.
Stafford says he "was miserable for a while," but his injuries, like Johnson's 0--16 experience, hardened him. The two players suffered just enough to make them value their chance at stardom.
Stafford had his last shoulder surgery on Jan. 21, 2011. Doctors told him that after 12 weeks he would be able to throw a Nerf. With the lockout looming, that seemed like plenty of time. But after two frustrating years Stafford was determined to beat something. He kicked that timetable's butt. "They released me at 11½ [weeks]," he says. "I was throwing a [real] football 50, 60 yards."
He came back and had one of the best seasons of any quarterback despite playing three games with a broken forefinger on his passing hand. He finished with a 97.2 passer rating and 41 touchdown passes, but his most promising stat might be this: He is only five months older than Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill. He will get better.
Stafford and Johnson are good friends, but Stafford says that "we're not on the phone every night or texting every night." Last season, though, they developed another form of communication: the mind meld. After Johnson dropped a touchdown against Kansas City in the season's second week, Schwartz called for the same play: a fade to the corner of the end zone. This time the cornerback lined up differently. Johnson eyed Stafford, who knew what was next. Johnson ran a hard slant inside, and Stafford found him for the easy touchdown.
Johnson knows Stafford will try to find him even when he appears covered. The result? In the Lions' final four games last year, including a playoff loss to the Saints, Stafford threw 52 passes to Johnson. Johnson caught 36 of them, for 771 yards and six touchdowns. Over a 16-game season that translates to 144 catches, 3,084 yards and 24 TDs. And Burleson insists that Johnson is better now than he was last season.
This is why the soft-spoken Johnson talks about historic numbers so matter-of-factly, as though he might run out and pick up some milk, a loaf of bread and 2,000 receiving yards.
It's not hype. It's observation.
"Potentially ... I mean, I had a couple of 200-yard games," says Johnson, who actually had 200 yards in three of his last four games. "If you do that every game, even if you have it every other game ... that could be something stupid right there."
WHEN LIONS rookies showed up this summer, three days before the veterans, they found Stafford in a corner of the weight room, working out. He did not lecture anybody about being a pro. He just wanted them to see him there.
"His leadership is that he brings a calm to the team," Schwartz says, and that is one reason why Stafford and Johnson have fit so well in Detroit. They like calm. They want to be the best players, not necessarily the biggest stars.
They have endorsement deals, but Johnson says he donates all his sponsorship money to his foundation for at-risk youth, and Stafford says of his commercial commitments, "I probably did more this off-season than I've ever done, and it was enough for me. Calvin seems to be the same way." Stafford would rather go to a Pistons game wearing a Tigers hat than fly to Los Angeles to shoot a commercial. Fans in Detroit have noticed.
"It doesn't matter what you do here, but you better be approachable," says Ford, who is also the executive chairman of the automobile company. "I feel like that's true in my position at Ford. I go in my plants unannounced all the time. This town values people that are genuine."
Ford says he views Stafford like Johnson: The only risk is injury. Stafford has three years left on his contract, but he will likely be in Detroit for a lot longer than that, rifling passes to a man nobody can defend, in a city that finally has a chance.
Stafford looked up the Peyton Manning--Marvin Harrison stat. He thought, That's a hell of a number, but there's a chance.
Exclusive outtakes from Stafford and Johnson's photo shoot with Walter Iooss Jr., at SI.com/photo
Where will Calvin Johnson stack up against the receiving giants of eras past when he retires? SI sees a future in which Megatron rules all
*Conservative projection based on Hutson's and Rice's first five years compared with the rest of their careers and using a 19-year career for Johnson, to match the 19 complete seasons Rice played.
Photograph by WALTER IOOSS JR.
TWO GOOD TO BE TRUE Detroit went winless in Johnson's second season, 2--14 in Stafford's first; now they've got a chance to right more than 50 years of wrongs.
FANTASY NUMBERS Johnson (right) has set last year's 1,681-yard season as a baseline figure. With Stafford throwing to him, he thinks a 2,000-yard year is within his grasp.
CLIFF WELCH/ICON SMI
[See caption above]
KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES
AWE OF THE BEAST Stafford has proved his toughness, sometimes to his peril. For Detroit's duo to make history, he's got to stay healthy.
ILLUSTRATION BY TODD DETWILER