By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) I tend to default to the older stars.
I usually believe that the greatest football players of all-time – and all pro athletes — are the ones that played in past generations.
I take Jim Brown over any football player before or since. I take Babe Ruth first and Willie Mays second in baseball. Michael Jordan gets the slightest of nods over Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. LeBron? No thank you. Bobby Orr gets the unanimous decision over Wayne Gretzky.
But it’s hard not to marvel at Calvin “Megatron” Johnson of the Detroit Lions. He broke Jerry Rice’s record (second-best football player ever) for most yardage in a season last week and he is simply an amazing athlete who has been unstoppable over the second half of the season.
Johnson would have been unstoppable in past generations. Take a look at his 6-5, 238-pound frame. There has never been another quality wide receiver who had his kind of size and strength. Brandon Marshall of the Bears is in the same ball park at 6-4 and 230 pounds, but he is merely a very good receiver.
Johnson is an all-time great.
The best defensive backs of the 1960’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s would not have had a chance against him.
Johnson has been on a roll that few receivers have ever known. Coming into the season finale against the Bears, he has caught a league-high 117 passes and he has set the NFL’s all-time record for 1,892 yards and (just) five touchdowns.
What’s amazing is that Johnson got off to a relatively slow start this year. Through the first seven games of the season, Johnson had 41 receptions and had gone over the 100-yard mark just three times. In the eight games that have followed, Johnson has caught 76 passes and never had less than 118 yards in any game.
Rice saw his all-time, single-season yardage record disappear Saturday night as Johnson caught 11 passes for 225 yards. Rice’s record of 1,848 receiving yards disappeared as the Falcons won the game.
Johnson is not a better receiver than Rice. Nobody was better than Rice at preparing, running patterns and catching the ball.
When Rice and Tim Browns were teammates on the 2002 Oakland Raiders, both were at the end of their careers. They made it to the Super Bowl that season and both were involved in the media scrums in the days preceding their game with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Brown was asked to describe the difference between his style and Rice’s. Brown looked at the questioner and hesitated for a second before he explained what made them different.
“Me, I just do what I have to just to get open. If I have to push, shove or run past somebody, I will do it,” Brown said. “But Jerry, well, he’s the best. He runs the most perfect routes and he is a true professional. He’s just better than everyone else. Nobody’s close.”
But Johnson continues to get better and climb the charts. Rice may have been unstoppable at the height of his career, but he was a normal-sized player at 6-2 and 200 pounds.
Johnson is a monster. Marshall, Andre Johnson and Vincent Jackson all have the kind of size and strength that make them very difficult to defend. A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, Reggie Wayne and Roddy White are all in the next rank of wide receivers.
But Megatron stands alone.
There are two wide receivers on any football team, including the NFL’s team of its all-time greats.
You would not be wrong to list Calvin Johnson as the No. 2 receiver on that team along with Rice.
Sometimes the biggest is also the best.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.