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Calvin Johnson matters, Lions and fans need to recognize that

The career of one of the greatest wide receivers in NFL history is at odds with fans and his former employer, and it feels all too familiar.

NFL: Oakland Raiders-OTA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Calvin Johnson’s last game as a professional football player was what many fans would consider a microcosm of his career in Detroit: Meaningless.

It was Week 17, the Lions were 6-9 and in Chicago to take on an equally listless Bears team. With their attention already directed towards the offseason, the only tangible thing on the line that Sunday afternoon for Lions fans was draft position. Not exactly must-see television.

In what would be his final game as a player for the Detroit Lions, Megatron would have one of those performances many of us grew accustom to him having: 10 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown en route to a regular season victory. Just another Sunday at the office for the greatest receiver in franchise history, but little did we know it was the last time he would line up to compete on an NFL field.

Fast forward to just over a year removed from the announcement of his retirement and Calvin Johnson is still a sore subject to broach for some Lions fans—especially when he shows up to Oakland’s OTAs wearing a Raiders shirt. After letting slip how he felt the team treated him less than he deserved to be on his way out, fans have now grown apathetic towards the guy whose career in Detroit, for as far as they’re concerned, was a fruitless endeavor.

I don’t even like to talk Lions too much just because the way our relationship ended.

Fans don’t like to talk Calvin Johnson too much just because the way that relationship ended.

The operative word there being “ended.”

With Johnson opening up old wounds over the weekend, presumably over the $320,000 he was forced to repay the team after he retired, fans went back to caring momentarily. They whined and complained about how he didn’t fulfill his contractual obligations, how he didn’t keep his end of the bargain to a deal offered to him by Tom Lewand. They took to Twitter to bitch and moan online as many of them still don’t understand how NFL contracts work with the internet literally at their fingertips. Some chose to vilify him, call the money Lions recouped from him a “drop in the bucket” to a multi-millionaire like Calvin Johnson and offer their prayers.

Point blank, when fans finished the final chapter on Calvin Johnson and closed the book, he didn’t matter, and that’s why the pendulum swung back so heavily after the initial reaction to what he said over this past weekend. He didn’t give a large contingency of fans want they wanted—playoff wins, a Super Bowl, a dynasty—and now he’s the guy who’s baselessly grumbling, drumming up old feelings for fans who want to talk about anything other than another Hall of Fame player who left them without anything tangible.

After all, Calvin’s time in Detroit was all for naught, right? The Lions used up all of his talents and it amounted to nothing. All of those stats, come-from-behind victories and mesmerizing catches were all a wash because the Lions never won squat—it’s the same equation with different variables when it comes to Barry Sanders, but all you’re doing is moving the posts: “Yeah, they made it to the NFC Championship game, but they never got as far as they should have!”

If Calvin’s time in Detroit yielded so little because there were no playoff wins, why does one comment over the weekend elicit such a strong amount of blowback?...

Oh, now it makes sense. You all want to see the Lions get their money back because for nine years, your return on the Calvin Johnson investment just doesn’t add up, and you need to balance the books. For that brief moment over the weekend where Calvin’s comments got a rise out of you, you didn’t see why the Lions shouldn’t have just went after the entire $3.2 million they had the right to get back.

In the doldrums of the NFL offseason, we’re left squabbling over whether or not the Lions were justified in asking for Calvin to repay part of his signing bonus, but let’s make this clear: it’s an act that is decidedly not the ‘Patriot Way.’

In the end, it’s a feeling that feels all too familiar, and the Lions need to make things right before they go too wrong for too long as they did with Barry Sanders. In Jim Caldwell’s press conference before Day 2 of OTAs, he at least said the right thing:

But now it’s up to the organization to make things right.

What ultimately matters here are two things: One, not all business decisions are made with dollars and cents as the ultimate priority, nor should they be. In a sport where your shelf life is extremely limited, your health is your only asset and your leverage against the team is minimal, it’s up to players to make all the money they can—and it’s up to the organization to show goodwill towards those players.

The other thing that matters? Calvin Johnson, making amends and honoring the incredible accomplishments of his career by retiring No. 81.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.