|Exit, Stage Sad|
What makes the departure striking is how much it mirrors what happened with Barry Sanders, the best RB in the history of this cursed franchise. That player also left money and milestones on the table, and meat on the bone. Johnson didn't even come to a podium and take questions about his decision, choosing instead to send in his announcement.
I watched Johnson very strongly last year, having him on my fantasy team in a tight race, and while he wasn't quite what he was in past years, he was still clearly Detroit's best player. In their best game of the year, the Thanksgiving evisceration of the Eagles, he absolutely toyed with CB Eric Rowe, who more than held his own for the rest of the year as a rookie CB on an island.
No one has any real idea how hurt Johnson was, or is; that's the nature of football, where health is a constantly diminishing asset. But I do know that there has to be a fantastic sadness to the world of being a Lions fan. You don't get to see your heroes leave when its time; instead, they just go when the losing gets to be too much, and you have to wonder if they just couldn't take it any more. They fought against the dying of the hope, but in the end, it's Detroit. Hope never works out.
So why now?
Well, the money, probably. Johnson was due $24 million against the team's salary cap in 2016, one of those balloon payments that teams never wind up making. If he wanted to come back, he probably would have had to take less, for no good reason at all. There was a real chance that the team could have moved him along to some other laundry, which was something he just didn't want to do. He's never been in any kind of trouble, and probably banked enough to not have to do anything he wants to do for, well, ever. It's football; your brain is at risk, even when you aren't on the line.
It might also have to do with an unwillingness to accept anything less. Johnson's fought a bunch of injuries, and while the height and hands are still there, the speed really isn't. Separation is the first thing to go for a wideout, and Johnson's yards per catch dropped to human levels this year. If he wanted to go somewhere else, and retirement was all just a Carson Palmer-esque ploy, 31 other NFL teams would be willing to start him tomorrow.
But instead, he's just gone. Man alive, the idea that your franchise just ends people. How do you shake that off? Ever?