Wide receivers are pack animals, despite what you may have heard. Certainly, there are alpha dogs in any pack, but by their nature they are as dependent on the pack as the pack is on them. There’s a reason the “lone wolf” is a cute idea for thirtysomethings and a cautionary tale in nature. For all of the talk about it being a glamour position, smart pass attacks rely on the interplay between bodies in motion, regardless of mass or velocity, and not merely any one part of the larger equation. It’s a beautiful illustration of Hume’s physics; units do not initiate of their own reason, but rather have each of their actions connected to other actors. This is not to say that the tired adage of “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” is infallibly true; great football talents define their greatness by making up for the weakness of others around them. However, it does indicate that there must be a reasonably designed “chain” before any real accomplishment can result from one link’s strength.
The Detroit Lions offense has, for the last year and a half, essentially been Calvin Johnson as a steel ring linked to ropes of sand. Last year saw Megatron put up 67 receptions for 984 yards (14.7 avg) in just 14 games, and yet it all felt very pedestrian, particularly with only 5 receptions going for touchdowns. By contrast, Johnson’s rookie campaign had 4 touchdowns on 756 yards and 48 receptions (15.8 avg), and his 2008 statistics were otherworldly considering that he had absolutely no support once Roy Williams left. Indeed, since Williams’s absence, Calvin Johnson has seemed like more of a monument to what Calvin Johnson could be than anything else, either pouring transcendent performances into mundane team losses at best or straining to break free at worst. Much of this can be traced to the fact that Johnson has no support. Brandon Pettigrew started to emerge prior to his season ending injury, but adding a dynamic receiving tight end didn’t so much end Johnson’s existence on an offensive island as much as push that island further down the field, opening short range work but leaving Johnson’s unparalleled deep threat gifts with no outlet.
Enter Nate Burleson. If Johnson is the heralded coming of the new great receiver, visibly dominating matchup nightmares, Burleson is a passing league’s best kept secret. Quiet as kept, Burleson put up 812 yards on 63 receptions (12.9 avg) while the Seahawks didn’t realize he was their best target for half the season, with a broken down Matt Hasselbeck trying to force the ball to beta-in-alpha’s-clothing TJ Houshmandzadeh and no run game for most of the year. Unlike every playmate Johnson has had since Williams, Burleson also brings another important plus to the Lions pass attack; he plays the same deep game that Johnson does, he just plays it differently. In place of Johnson’s visible dominance, Burleson has a sort of sixth sense for the ball, finding it at the last second and preventing defenders from turning away from him to intercept, then taking angles after the catch that unfold as though he’d had weeks rather than seconds to plan them. Combined with the speed to make these gifts work downfield, Burleson’s old school savvy should find itself paired with Johnson’s new school mutation in the long range aerial attack.
All of this is to say that we may finally get to see the return Megatron as mythic titan instead of beast of burden. Burleson is the deep target who can and will punish teams for devoting too much safety help on defense to Johnson. With Pettigrew working similarly beneath the field, we may finally get to see Megatron exist without the unnatural constraints that defenses have been able to put on him thanks to his solitude in the Lions offense. This makes Burleson’s immersion into the Detroit offense as a legitimate downfield weapon critical for the team’s success and for Johnson’s rightful claim to dominance in the NFL. As an also ran, Burleson gives Johnson little more than Bryant Johnson or Shaun McDonald (Stallworth in New England sticks out as well); as a core part of the offense, his success will only increase that of Megatron (think Housh and Ochocinco in Cincy). In place of the circus sideshow (we hate the spectacle around here), Detroit finally has found the planets necessary to create a universe, which is all Johnson, it’s sun, has needed to shine.