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Learning from history: Can the Lions offense actually improve without Calvin Johnson?

We dive into past examples of teams losing an all-star receiver to see if offenses can survive without them.

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Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to ask a national NFL pundit to describe the Detroit Lions 2016 offseason in one sentence, the expert would likely think for a second and just say the words "Calvin Johnson." But why speculate? Let me show you.

ESPN on slotting the Lions' 24th in Power Rankings:

In "Transformers," when Megatron is defeated, his mind stays alive inside of his severed head until he gains the strength and opportunity to become reborn as Galvatron. The Lions are replacing Calvin Johnson with Marvin Jones.

CBS on giving Lions a B offseason grade:

The Skinny: They needed to sign a receiver with Calvin Johnson retiring, so landing Marvin Jones was a solid move -- even if he's more of a No. 2 receiver.

Pro Football Focus on the Lions' C- free agency period:

Plenty of teams lost a key player to retirement this off-season, but the Lions lost two. Even if he wasn’t 100 percent, Calvin Johnson (89.4) was still a top-10 receiver and the heart of the Detroit offense.

Now you can't really fault the national media for focusing on the Johnson retirement. It was big news both nationally and locally. I'm not going to sit here and convince you that the Lions will be no different without their leading receiver from seven of the past nine seasons. Yes, the Lions will be different, but will they be catastrophically worse on offense like many of these national pundits seem to be suggesting? Let's look at a few case examples from the past to see.

Case No. 1: The 2004 San Francisco 49ers post-Terrell Owens

I'm going to purposely start with the ugly one. In 2003 the 49ers had one of the best offenses in the league, ranking in the top ten in points per game (24.0), passing yards per game (213.0) and rushing yards (142.4). Owens was obviously a huge part of that offense, hauling in 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns. But San Francisco, much like the 2015 Lions, faltered to a disappointing 7-9 record and failed to make the playoffs. So what happened after Owens marched his way out of San Francisco?

An unmitigated disaster. The 2004 49ers went 2-14 with one of the worst offenses in the league. They scored nearly eight points less per game than in 2003 (24.0 to 16.2), passed for just 196.0 yards per game (20th) and fell to the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game (90.5, 30th).

But there is one very important caveat to this example: The 49ers had a respectable Jeff Garcia quarterbacking the team in 2003. The following year, Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey split time behind center, combining for just 16 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. It's one thing to lose a Pro Bowl wide receiver, it's another to start anew with two subpar passers.

The Lions aren't going through that major of a transition, so consider this example a worse-case scenario.

Case No. 2: The 2005 Minnesota Vikings post-Randy Moss

Randy Moss' final year with the Vikings again represented one of the best offenses in the league. On their way to a 8-8 record and a wild card berth, the Vikings scored the sixth-most points in the league and threw the second-most passing yards. Moss, despite sitting out three games with an injury, gained 767 yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns. That year, the Vikings would defeat the Packers in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to the Eagles a week later.

When Moss headed for greener (?) pastures in Oakland, again we saw a pretty significant decrease in production across the board offensively. The Vikings went from 25.3 points per game to 19.1, 282.3 passing yards per game to 196.6. They even dropped from 113.9 rushing yards per game to just 91.7. Again we saw the fall of one of the best offenses in the league to one of the team's worst. Yet the team actually improved its record to 9-7, just barely missing out on the postseason.

Again, though, we have a very big mitigating factor. Daunte Culpepper, who was considered one of the best quarterbacks during that time, suffered an injury seven weeks into the 2005 season, with Brad Johnson backing him up the rest of the way. Still, you have to be worried, as Culpepper threw 12 interceptions through his first seven games without Moss to rely on.

Case No. 3: The 2011 Cincinnati Bengals post-Chad Johnson (and Terrell Owens)

Remember those crazy times when the Bengals had both Ochocinco and T.O. on the same team? Back when the NFL was starting to transform into today's No Fun League? Well it was a reality in 2010, when the Bengals sported a modest offense despite all of the attention. Despite the fact that both Johnson and Owens were past their primes, they still drew in a lot of attention. That year, they combined for 1,814 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Bengals offense, however, still muddled in mediocrity, scoring just 20.1 points per game (22nd).

But when both left the midwest the following year, the Bengals actually showed some improvement. They scored about one more point per game, and although they dropped over 20 passing yards per game they gained nearly 20 more rushing yards per game. Most importantly they went from a 4-12 record in 2010 to a 9-7 finish and a playoff berth.

Again, there were some other factors that make this comparison a little iffy. First, there was another quarterback change during this year. The Bengals went from Carson Palmer in 2010 to rookie Andy Dalton the following year. Perhaps more importantly, the Bengals went out and replace the two diva receivers with A.J. Green, who had 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns his rookie year.

Still, this is an interesting example of how the Bengals were able to improve after losing two pretty significant pieces to their offense. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this example is even though passing yards went way down, Cincinnati actually scored more points, perhaps as a result of a much improved running game. Cedric Benson, who averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 2010, bumped that number up to 3.9 in 2011. Not outstanding numbers, but definitely not insignificant, either.

So what does that mean in Detroit?

Well, the Lions' situation is a little unprecedented. Rarely has a superstar like Megatron retired in the prime of his career. In the past, when a team has lost such a big part of their offense, the organizations -- either by choice or by force -- have had to completely gut that side of the ball and start anew, typically with poor results.

But the Lions won't be doing that this year. In terms of skill players, the Lions will be returning most of the pieces from last year. Unless Matthew Stafford suffers an injury, it will be him staring at familiar receiving options, albeit one major piece replaced with Marvin Jones.

Still, we can draw some conclusions from these previous regimes. Most troubling is the example in Minnesota. The Vikings must have figured they were fine without Moss, especially since Nate Burleson led the team in yards Moss' final year anyway. But Burleson couldn't step up to the plate, gaining just 328 yards in nine starts. Obviously, Culpepper's injury had a lot to do with Minnesota's plummet, but this is also a precautionary tale that No. 2 receivers can't alway fill that No. 1 role. Golden Tate, this concerns you.

But the Bengals provide a relatively successful blueprint as to how the Lions can move on to life after Megatron. Cincinnati improved their run game, and while they also shored up the passing game with a new quarterback and a new No. 1 receiver, it didn't turn their team into a passing behemoth. Instead, their balanced attack allowed the offense to show a small improvement, while the defense went out and won games for them.

The Lions have already shown they are willing to commit to that plan. By adding several run-blocking linemen in the draft, Detroit's running game will almost assuredly be better in 2016. And with a more balanced attack, this offense has a good chance to very different, and more importantly, better. After all, this wasn't even that good of an offense last year. They ranked 18th in points, ninth in passing yards and 32nd in rushing yards. This was an offense in need of change and Calvin Johnson's retirement may have actually been the move to kickstart it.

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