By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – It looks like health issues are in the rearview mirror for Detroit Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson. At least in the OTA practice open to the media Wednesday, Johnson looked as fast and sharp as ever.
He has certainly impressed new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
“It’s really – you’ve got to be careful not to be a fan when you’re watching him because it’s really unbelievable when you see him in person, just how big and strong and fast he is – even more so than you thought,” Lombardi said. “It’s pretty impressive.”
More importantly, Johnson may finally be feeling almost as good as he looks.
“I feel pretty good right now,” Johnson said. “I’m out here working, taking all my reps for the most part. Body’s feeling good, knee’s feeling good, hand’s feeling good, so I can’t complain.”
Johnson said the injuries did not hamper him too much last year in games, saying that while it might have been painful, he could still play. He explained briefly the extent of the injuries to his finger and knee, both of which underwent surgery following the season.
“It was bad enough where I had to get it drained every week,” Johnson said of the knee, then chuckled when he described the other problem. “Finger, it was stuck at 90 degrees. It’s good to have those things freed up right now.”
Despite being unable to practice most of the time last season and missing two games, Johnson still racked up 1,492 yards on 84 catches in 2013, though his numbers in both categories were lower than they were the previous two seasons. While Johnson said he would not have played had the injuries affected him too seriously, he is happy to be getting more reps with his teammates now.
“It hurts [to miss practices] because one, you kind of lose your wind a little bit,” Johnson said. “You know the plays, but I feel that you have to go out there and practice to be able to play at your best. I’m a firm believer in that. I had experience in the offense, therefore I was able to go out and still play, but I’m a firm believer in being out there during the week – definitely improves your performance on Sunday.”
Obviously an integral part of Detroit’s offense, Johnson said his role in the new scheme is quite different from what it was last year, though he said he could not explain fully without revealing too many details of the playbook.
“It’s not the same as last year by any means,” Johnson said. “I guess I could say the only similarity is you’ll see me in different positions within the offense. I love it because we can run one play out of so many different looks, and that goes for every play that we have. It’s so much variety.”
Even on an offense that has other significant weapons, including Super Bowl-winning wide receiver Golden Tate and versatile running back Reggie Bush, Johnson stands out to Lombardi – just like he does to every other coach in the NFL.
“He dictates a lot of coverages, meaning there’s certain things defenses are going to be a little more hesitant to do with a guy like Calvin out there,” Lombardi said. “It allows you, I think, the quarterback to kind of pre-snap some things, and if they are leaving him singled up, it allows you to get into plays that take advantage of that, so he’s obviously a very valuable weapon.”
With the offensive players still learning the new playbook, the defense looked to have an upper hand in offense-versus-defense drills to some degree Wednesday, but Johnson was not worried, even though the defensive players had chances to shout and celebrate more than the offense probably would have liked.
“If there’s anything that we’re messing up on, it’s self-inflicted,” Johnson said. “It’s good to see our defense performing at a high level right now. We love to see it because they’re going to get better and we’re going to get better just because they’re so sharp right now. It’s going to make us all better in the end.”
Lombardi also said the progression of the offense – and the appearance of the defense being better at this point – is normal, particularly because of the Lions implementing their new scheme.
“Today was a little sloppy, I’m not going to lie to you,” Lombardi said. “I was getting a little angry today because I thought that mostly the drops and some of the alignments weren’t what you want. So, it was really a concentration issue more than anything, but I’m pretty excited about these players we have and the way this thing is going to develop.”
Tate certainly has high expectations for the group. Tate recently visited Washington D.C. with his former team, the Seattle Seahawks, to meet President Barack Obama, and Johnson joked that he wanted Tate to deliver a message.
“I told him to tell Obama I said, ‘What’s up?'” Johnson said without missing a beat as he laughed. “[Tate] responded, he said, ‘We can tell him all ourselves next year.”