Fri, 03 Jul 2020

Where are they now: Johnnie Morton

Detroit Lions
29 Jun 2020, 20:25 GMT+10

Johnnie Morton crossed the Detroit Lions off as a potential landing spot for him in the 1994 NFL draft after he and super-agent Leigh Steinberg had done their research to break down the possibilities.

They agreed with most draft analysts that the Lions were likely to shore up the defense with the 21st pick in the first round. And with veteran starters Herman Moore and Brett Perriman returning, taking a receiver in the first round seemed even more remote.

"We made a list of the teams that I was most likely to be drafted by, maybe I'd be drafted by, and no chance," Morton said in a telephone interview from his home in Colorado.

"The Lions were the last category - no chance."

Morton laughed when he recalled how his draft research proved to be wrong when the Lions took him with the 21st pick.

"I was in shock," he said. "Why would they pick me? It ended up being the best moment in my life."

And it was a good moment for the Lions - a win-win outcome in the draft.

There was no question about Morton's ability. He was a four-year player at Southern Cal and a consensus All-American as a senior in 1993. He first made his mark as a freshman in 1990 with a touchdown catch with 16 seconds left in Southern Cal's win over arch-rival UCLA.

Morton spent the first eight of his 12 NFL seasons with the Lions. He departed in 2002, signing with the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent. After three seasons in KC he spent a final year with the San Francisco 49ers.

Morton had a productive career with the Lions, one that gets overlooked.

Morton ranks third in franchise history in career receptions (469) and receiving yards (6,499) and is tied with Terry Barr for third in career TD catches with 35.

For his full 12 seasons, he had 624 catches (69th all time) and 8,719 receiving yards (75th).

Morton had a little flair in his playing style, but he was a tough competitor who never shied away from going over the middle or diving to make contested catches in traffic.

Bobby Ross, the Lions' head coach from 1997 through midseason of 2000, once said of Morton "he can make the 'pro catch.'"

The meaning was that Morton did more than make ordinary catches he was supposed to make. He also made the extraordinary ones.

Morton came to the Lions at a time when the Lions were consistent playoff contenders. Before his arrival they had won division titles in 1991 and '93. They made the playoffs as a wild card four times in his first six seasons as a Lion, from 1994-99. The 2000 team finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs with a final-game loss to Chicago.

Morton quickly embraced the football environment in Detroit, and how the fans made the old Pontiac Silverdome rock on gameday.

"It was the people, and just the passion," he said. "I grew up on the West Coast. Sports aren't taken as seriously. I remember going to Lakers games. It was almost like a club to them. They (the fans) were making an appearance.

"In Detroit, it was something I'd never been accustomed to. There's so much passion around the sports. That was huge.

"The fans poured their heart out to the team. They lived and died with the team. It was so cool. They've been Lions fans their entire lives. Their kids have Lions gear. It's a totally different atmosphere.

"I grew to love and appreciate that."

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Morton was a spectator for most of his rookie season. He played 14 games, without a start, and caught only three passes. One was for a touchdown. He also returned four kickoffs, with one of them going 93 yards for a touchdown.

Seven touches for the season - three catches, four kickoff returns - was not what he was accustomed to, or expecting.

"It was probably the most frustrating football year of my life," he said. "I was coming off a really great year (at Southern Cal). I wanted to come in and make a huge splash in Detroit."

Morton said he talked to Chuck Schmidt, then the Lions' chief operating officer, about the possibility of being traded.

A trade did not come close to happening, and Morton got some encouraging words from the late Ron Hughes, the Lions' long-time head of player personnel.

"He came up to me one day at my locker," Morton said. "He was a straight up guy. He'd just give you the straight truth. That's it, whether you liked it or not.

"He told me, 'You're going to play a lot. Just be patient. I promise you, we wouldn't have drafted you if we didn't have big plans for you.'"

Hughes' words proved true.

Starting with the 1995 season, Morton was a key member of a dynamic, productive offense with Herman Moore and Barry Sanders as the stars. Morton played all 16 games in his last seven seasons with the Lions with 104 starts.

He went from eight targets, three catches and 39 receiving yards and one receiving TD in 1994 to 80 targets, 44 catches, 590 receiving yards and eight receiving TDs in 1995.

Morton's role continued to expand. He jumped to 55 catches and 714 yards in 1996. He went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark four times in his last five seasons in Detroit, from 1997-2001.

Morton was part of a special offense in the 1997 season.

Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards. Moore led the NFL in receptions for the second time in three seasons with 104 catches. And both Moore (1,293) and Morton (1,057) went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark.

Of the seven teams that have had a 2,000-yard rusher, the Lions are the only one with two 1,000-yard receivers in that season. The 2008 Broncos are the only other team with one (Brandon Marshall, 1,265).

Morton wasn't a silent partner in an offense that put up big stats - including the 1995 season when Moore had 123 catches and Perriman 108.

He provided one of the many options that were available.

"Obviously, I had some impact," Morton said. "If you look at the offense, that's rare to have that many guys on one offense. You couldn't put that team together now. You couldn't have three receivers now with Barry and David Sloan (a Pro Bowl tight end).

"You can't do that now."

Morton, who turns 49 in October, didn't want to leave the Lions when he became a free agent after the disastrous 2001 season. The Lions lost their first 12 games and went 2-14. It was a matter of finances that caused him to sign with the Chiefs.

The bottom line: He got a far better offer from the Chiefs.

He values the time he spent in Detroit, from interacting with Lions fans, and the lessons he learned from wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. Sullivan was an assistant with the Lions in Morton's last four seasons in Detroit.

"Easily the most technical coach in the history of the league," Morton said. "If you can run and catch a little bit, he'll make you a great receiver."

That connection is one of the many reasons Morton, who turns 48 in October, identifies himself as a former Lion, despite playing for the Chiefs and 49ers.

"I felt like this was my town," he said. "I was excited to go to a new stadium (Ford Field in 2002). I felt like I helped put the foundation down, put the bricks down.

"I just never saw myself playing anywhere but Detroit. Ask anyone. I'm an ex-Lion."

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