OAKLAND, Calif. – Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson pulled on a baggy red t-shirt to match his black sweat pants and his classic Michael Jordan high tops. The front of the t-shirt featured a list Air Jordan's many career accomplishments.
Asked about which version of Jordan kicks he was wearing, Johnson smiled and replied, "1985, the year I was born."
Perhaps, some day 22 years in the future, some young man will idolize Johnson and his achievements. Moreover, many of the Oakland Raiders fans who came early and left earlier might have been wondering if a 36-21 season-opening loss to the Lions might have been different had their franchise taken the talented Johnson at No. 1 overall instead of holdout quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
The game Sunday was something of a study in team building as the teams with the top two picks from the NFL draft in April clashed. Not that a four-catch, 70-yard, one-touchdown performance is anything worth projecting such greatness just yet. But in terms of putting a franchise on the road to redemption, the presence of Johnson might help the Lions update their look. Detroit could use it because the Lions haven't been any good since the Edsel came out and the players know it.
They had no problem acknowledging that past Lions teams might have folded after blowing a 17-0 second-half lead to the Raiders on Sunday.
"That's when the old Detroit Lions would have gone in the tank," wide receiver Roy Williams said. "We didn't and the credit goes to coach (Rod) Marinelli. He has totally changed the way we think and he got the right people in here and the wrong people out."
After the game, there was little flash from Johnson. No preening or trash talking, mostly just mild dissection of the performance and lots of glib answers. At a position that tends to produce divas by the dozen, Johnson is a Garbo … and also a serious talent.
Detroit frequently went to three- and four-receiver sets, both staples of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, with Johnson playing outside and occasionally in the slot. The result was man coverage throughout the game and plenty of open receivers for quarterback Jon Kitna, who completed 27 of 36 passes for 289 yards, three scores and two interceptions.
In fact, Kitna responded immediately after the Raiders had taken the lead. Kitna completed four of five passes for 67 yards and even scrambled out of a potential sack. He also escaped pressure to set up Shaun McDonald for the go-ahead 32-yard score. After that, Oakland imploded with two turnovers that both led to scores.
A year ago, the Lions offense was in far different condition with only Roy Williams and Mike Furrey as legitimate targets. In recent weeks, Martz has even joked that last year's game plans were more a "wish" list – a list of plays he wished he could run.
Now, with Johnson in the mix, the Lions have more explosive components.
"He's going to be historic," said Williams. "You can put it down, he's going to be one of those 100-touchdown guys in this league … I told him before the game, we have to both take this one a little personally against the Raiders because in 2004, they should have taken me No. 2 and in 2007, they should have taken him No. 1."
Chatter aside, there are some things to be pleased about with the Raiders. They were, for the most part, competent on offense, lining up in the right spots and going the right direction. That may not sound like much, but compared to a year ago, the Raiders have come farther than Sean Penn since his marriage to Madonna.
More important, the Raiders may finally have a contract done with Russell by Monday. Two sources, including one from the team, indicated that Russell's deal was near completion.
While Russell doesn't figure to play much, if at all, this season, the Raiders aren't really in position to worry about this season. This is a team already in a wait-till-next decade mode.
Despite the more organized methods of coach Lane Kiffin, the Raiders just aren't that talented yet. Moreover, their biggest perceived strength from a year ago is really an illusion. The defense which so many Raiders fans believe is championship caliber, was a mirage created by how bad the offense was a year ago.
The Raiders finished No. 1 in pass defense last season, contributing to being No. 3 overall in the league. That's where stats lie. They were No.1 against the pass because opponents didn't have to throw (the Raiders had the fewest passes in the league thrown against them). Why should opponents have thrown if Oakland was no threat to score?
By contrast, the Lions have to throw. With Johnson, Williams, Furrey and McDonald at wide receiver, passing is their foundation.
"When we come out in four wides, you just look at the other side and know if you just do your job, somebody is going to be open," said Williams, who admitted that he got a reminder of that in the second half.
Williams let a catchable throw tip off his hands and get intercepted late in the third quarter. That allowed Oakland to score again and close to within 17-14.
"In this offense, you have to get your stuff together or you're not getting the ball," Williams said. "After I dropped that ball, I didn't get another ball thrown my way. I gotta get my stuff together."
From an overall perspective, the Lions seem to be getting their stuff together after years of misery. They may still be a long way from a playoff contender, but the fourth-quarter rally was certainly a change.
"Yeah, the old Lions probably would have folded that up and who knows what would have happened," said defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who was simply a beast in the middle of the Lions defense. "Now, it's just different. It's a lot better. You feel it when you come to work."
"Well, now when I'm coming to work, I know we're preparing to win," Rogers said. "Before, we were just preparing to play."