Forget about Dez Bryant's sideline meltdown. Forget about Matt Stafford's comeback and the spontaneous brilliance of his fake-spike-turned-touchdown. Forget about the lily that Peyton Manning keeps painting. Yesterday belonged to Calvin Johnson. Hell, every day belongs to Calvin Johnson.
The numbers speak for themselves—14 receptions for 329 yards and a touchdown—but even they don't do justice to what Johnson is up to. The man is breaking football.
Three plays from yesterday's game:
The first play in that clip shows Calvin Johnson turning a simple slant route into an 87-yard gain. The catch and the run are impressive, but that stiff arm he throws into Brandon Carr is what makes the play. He actually seems to speed up while dispatching the would-be tackler. Marshawn Lynch can stiff-arm defenders like that, but he at least he has the courtesy to slow down a bit when he does it.
Next, we have Johnson streaking down the middle of the field, toward a safety who is waiting to defend the kind of desperate pass—a 500 ball, really—that he's probably broken up many hundreds of times since he started playing football. But then there's Calvin Johnson, leaping off one foot and skying over two defenders as if they were Division III scrubs who had accidentally wandered onto the field.
And then we have Johnson's final catch of the day, in which he snares a bullet from Matt Stafford before absorbing an immediate and crushing blow from the safety. That's the kind of hit that can jar the ball loose when unleashed on other receivers, but the fact that it even brought Johnson to the ground almost feels surprising.
We've discussed Johnson's transcendent abilities here before, but yesterday was notable because the breadth of those abilities was on vivid display in one afternoon. Yes, there are other receivers capable of making the three plays in the video above, but how many of them are capable of making all three in the same season, let alone the same game?
There are two kinds of football stars. There are the ones like Peyton Manning, players who spring out of a familiar archetype but just do their thing better than nearly anyone else ever has. They've mastered a game you can recognize, and the enjoyment you derive from watching them is the enjoyment you derive from well-folded laundry, from things fitting perfectly into other things, from order being imposed on chaos. Grantland's Brian Phillips described Manning best, as a midlevel IT manager who spends each week auditing his opponents to death.
And then there are the stars like Calvin Johnson, archetypes unto themselves. Johnson doesn't so much master all the game's machinery as he breaks it and rearranges it more to his liking, chaos being imposed on chaos. He lights up the same pleasure centers of the brain that appreciate fireworks, violent nature documentaries, and old casino implosion videos. Manning is great and everything, but sometimes you just want to watch a guy blow shit up.