DETROIT, Mich. — “Unbelievable” is the first word that comes to Matthew Stafford‘s mind when recalling Calvin Johnson’s 329-yard performance against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 27, 2013.
“There were so many great plays in that game, but his ability to compete to the end was the best part,” Stafford remembered.
It started early on with Johnson’s first-quarter slant that he took for 87 yards. From there, the wideout known as Megatron, due to his extraordinary combination of size and speed, went on to catch 13 more balls en route to the second-highest single-game receiving yardage total in NFL history, behind only Willie “Flipper” Anderson’s 336-yard day in 1989.
“It was an unbelievable thing to play with a guy like that,” Stafford told ESPN. “From day one, I knew that I was throwing to a Hall of Famer as long as he stayed healthy.”
And Stafford was right.
On Sunday, Johnson will be one of eight enshrined as a member of the Class of 2021 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Lions’ all-time leader in receptions (731), receiving yards (11,619) and receiving touchdowns (83) had no shortage of memorable performances throughout his storied career. But none stood out more than that unforgettable October afternoon against Dallas, when the gritty Lions pulled off a mega comeback to take down “America’s Team,” 31-30, at Ford Field in the Motor City.
Johnson places that performance in his top three games of his incredible nine-year career, which culminates over the weekend when he joins Jim Brown and Gale Sayers as being just the third player ever to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 35 or younger.
For anyone who was able to witness Megatron in his prime, they were treated to something truly special. And that 2013 game against Dallas was one of many examples of why he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“It’s exciting that he is going to the Hall of Fame. He’s very well deserving,” Lions great and fellow Hall of Famer Barry Sanders told ESPN. “There was no player and receiver more dominant than he was when he played.”
ESPN caught up with those who were there — including the man who “covered” Johnson that day — to retell the story of one of the all-time great’s best games.
In the lead-up to the game, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant made a Monday radio appearance on 103.3 FM ESPN in Dallas. Although Bryant meant no disrespect, he told listeners he wasn’t willing to call Johnson the NFL’s best wide receiver ahead of their clash at Ford Field that Sunday.
“I believe I can do whatever he can do,” Bryant said. “It’s just a pride thing. When it comes to football, just being on the field, it’s a mindset and having a mentality.
“I honestly believe when I’m there, I’ll be feeling like there’s nothing I can’t do. Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I’m going to do it. I always feel like there’s more.”
Those comments quickly traveled back to the Lions’ Allen Park practice facility. Though outwardly, Johnson appeared to pay them no mind, even after catching wind of them through members of the local media. Instead, Johnson anticipated Dallas’ game plan, visualizing how they would defend him and how he would attack physical Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, who would be tasked with covering Johnson most of the day.
“I just remember Calvin in practice. He was real quiet,” Lions left guard Rob Sims said. “He didn’t really say much, but he was just going about his business. Then to see him perform in that game the way he did, it was one of those moments that you realize you’re truly in the presence of the G.O.A.T.”
When Sunday came, Johnson’s pregame routine remained the same. He arrived three hours before kickoff to get comfortable and eliminate any distractions. He walked around the field to visualize what he would do, imagining all the routes he was going to run and the blocks he would make.
Then, it was game time.
“I just let my mind sink in and focus on what I had to do,” Johnson said.
Entering the zone
Johnson’s first catch came with 2:44 remaining in the first quarter, and set the stage for his near record-breaking day.
Feeding off the adrenaline of more than 64,000 roaring fans, Johnson’s juices were flowing with Carr matched up against him on a slant route. Whether Carr knew it or not, the way Dallas’ No. 39 defended Johnson on that play helped the future Hall of Famer find his groove.
When the ball was snapped on 2nd & 10 from the Detroit 10, Johnson took two steps, easily bounced off Carr’s attempted jam and snagged a short pass from Stafford behind the Cowboy linebackers who had bitten on a play fake to Lions running back Reggie Bush. From there, his strength and speed took over, with Johnson easily shedding a Carr tackle at the 25-yard line and then outrunning the Dallas defense before being angled out of bounds at the 5.
After the 87-yard play, Johnson said he told himself this could be a “200-yard night” based off the mental yardage tracker he’d developed over the years.
“One thing I liked about Brandon on certain routes is his aggressive nature, and that was perfect for me because I liked contact on the top of certain routes and that specific route is a slant,” Johnson said. “I love contact on the top of my slant route. I like to put my weight on you so then I could bounce off of you. So, that’s exactly what happened there. I got a stiff arm off of him and then I broke out.”
The game was somewhat of a homecoming for Carr with many of his family and friends in attendance at Ford Field. He grew up a little more than an hour from Detroit, in Flint, Michigan, and was a fifth-round pick from Division II Grand Valley State.
“I played against Brandon a couple times and Brandon’s always a physical player who likes to get his hands on you. He’s kind of sticky so I have mad respect for him, but I remember at the time, I didn’t know he was from Flint.” Johnson said, laughing. “It’s like ‘Aw man, I hate to do that to him at home.'”
At 6-foot, 210 pounds, Carr was tasked with the difficult assignment of guarding Johnson — a 6-5, 237-pound once-in-a-generation talent.
As the catches and yardage piled up, Sims at one point in the huddle just stared at Johnson in amazement.
“Probably the reason why you call him Megatron. He had the mirror face [mask] on,” Sims said. “The dude’s veins was popping out and he ain’t saying nothing. He’s just killing them boys out there.”
Carr prepared for Johnson in the week leading into the game, putting in hours of film study to make sure his positioning was perfect.
Dallas’ coaching staff referred to Johnson only as the “nameless receiver” — as they did with every top wideout — during preparations for Detroit, but Carr knew he had a tough challenge.
“This guy is a freak. He can run a 4.3, 50 yards down the field. His quarterback has a helluva arm, Stafford, right? And this guy can jump 40 inches at the drop of a dime after he’s ran a 4.3, so it’s like ‘How in the heck do I cover that?'” Carr said. “So, in this particular game we didn’t do a great job of scheming him up. We didn’t do a great job of talking where this man was on each and every play and he made us pay for it.”
With Stafford dropping dimes all over the field, Johnson made catch after catch, particularly during the second half of the close battle, while benefiting from a lot of one-on-one coverage. Sometimes, the Cowboys attempted to slow him down with a zone, but Johnson had his way, entering a different type of zone of his own.
“It’s easy to fall off, just to take your eye off the ball for a split second, but when you’re dialed in, a lot of it is muscle memory,” Johnson said. “You’ve done it so many times in practice, so it’s easier to get into that zone because you’re like ‘Hey, I’m comfortable here because I’ve done this so many times.’ So I guess that’s a big part of being in that zone is your comfortability being in the present moment and what you did to prepare for that moment.”
At halftime, the Lions trailed 10-7 and were forced to overcome a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit. On their final drive, Stafford completed a deep middle pass to Johnson for 17 yards with 56 seconds left, then found Johnson on another deep pass completion for 22 yards with 33 seconds left. That play set up the winning score in which Stafford faked a clock-stopping spike before jumping over the goal line for a one-yard touchdown.
“Calvin Johnson is the greatest receiver in the history of the NFL! #dropsthemic,” Bush tweeted after the game.
Megatron’s destruction of the Cowboys equaled a number of franchise and league records. Johnson’s 14 receptions tied for the most in a single game in Lions history. The game was also his fifth of more than 200 receiving yards, tied for the most such games since 1950. And an incredible seven of his receptions went for at least 20 yards, tied for the most in a game over the past 20 years.
Although his connection with Stafford, who threw for 488 yards — the second-highest single-game total in his career — drew the most attention, Johnson was also conscious of his teammates positioning him for success despite eight penalties.
Strong blocking and the team effort from those around him made the feat possible.
“He was putting everything on the money,” Johnson said of Stafford, who completed 33-of-48 attempts. “He was throwing balls at the back of DBs heads but we were catching them.”
Defeating the Cowboys in Detroit was a milestone for the Lions, who improved to 5-3. The first thing Johnson could think about after was shutting up his auntie, who is a huge Cowboys fan.
Johnson also didn’t have to say much about Bryant’s pregame comments. He let his actions speak. Despite Bryant playing well — scoring two touchdowns off three receptions for 72 yards — their level of play wasn’t comparable. At one point during the third quarter, Bryant flapped his arms and screamed at Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo on the sideline, after not being made the intended receiver on a play, which he later described as positive emotion.
“Of course, it adds a little gunpowder,” Johnson said, laughing off Bryant’s statement. “It just adds a fuel to the fire and it makes that fire that much bigger when they’ve got to deal with it and I think they did that before a couple years earlier when we played them down in Dallas, when Rob Ryan said something and it happened then, so you would think they might’ve learned then but they clearly didn’t.”
Lions coach Jim Schwartz gave Johnson a game ball and told him the official yardage total. His phone was flooded with text messages and calls from friends and family, who showered him with congratulations. But he spent his postgame time alone, in the ice bath at home, before ever revisiting the highlights of the performance on the television screen with his feet up for recovery.
“That was a lot of running today,” Johnson told himself.
Carr marveled at how many plays involved Johnson. He was targeted 16 times in all. Covering Johnson was nowhere near what it was like to check other receivers. Carr found out Johnson’s official yardage total on the team bus after the game.
“Just after the game, I kind of went over the game and over the week of preparation and I was like, ‘Damn, we didn’t give this man enough credit,'” Carr said. “Not saying we’re afraid of him, but give that man credit and recognize who he is so we can really get our mentals ready to go out there and stop a Megatron force, which he really is.”
Nowadays, Carr calls Johnson “one of the best to ever do it” and hopes others do too. Being a witness to that performance is something he’ll never forget.
“Randy Moss made coaches go and find cornerbacks like me who are 6-foot, with a long wingspan, then Calvin came along and made it hard for those same prospects,” Carr said.