HOUSTON—Andre Johnson waited nearly a decade before he could dip into the NFL postseason pool, and now that he’s made his initial splash, he’s determined to dive a lot deeper.
Since the Houston Texans drafted Johnson No. 3 overall in 2003, the wide receiver has stuck it out through the team’s inconsistency and his own injuries to endure as the face of the franchise for nine stellar seasons. Because of two hamstring injuries that caused him to miss nine games a year ago, he didn't add to his five Pro Bowl appearances, but the end of the season brought a much more desired reward.
“That was a goal of mine to get this organization to its first playoff berth,” Johnson said. “We did that, won our first playoff game, and we played a great game in Baltimore (in the divisional round)—just came up a play short.
“It definitely makes you hungry. It was a great experience. You want to not only experience that again, but experience more, keep winning and hopefully accomplish that ultimate goal.”
The big question for Johnson going into 2012 is his health. At 31, he’s had a lot of wear and tear, missing 12 games over the past two seasons with leg injuries. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May, he wasn't able to participate in the Texans’ organized team activities and minicamp. Early in training camp, he fought through a groin injury to get back on the field.
Not surprisingly, the Texans are being cautious with their offensive difference-maker. After returning on Monday from the groin injury, he was limited to 20 plays per day in practice—and he's not expected to play in Saturday's exhibition opener at Carolina. The Texans need Johnson at full strength to start the regular season, and he's working to get there.
While he's been busy rehabbing for most of the offseason, he has kept one thing in the back of his mind—a return to the postseason.
“Every year, the goal has been the Super Bowl. I didn’t think it would take this long,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we will get it done this year.”
The small taste of playoff success hasn’t spoiled Johnson or changed his approach toward what he likes to do more than anything—strive to stand out at wideout.
“He’s still the same guy. He’s going to come here, week in and week out, and put in the work, and that’s why he’s the best receiver in the league,” said Texans center Chris Myers, a college teammate of Johnson’s at the University of Miami and has played with him in Houston since ’08. “Going back to college—and I played against him in high school (in Miami), too—he’s been that way his whole career.”
While it could be natural for there to be an emotional letdown after the high of the Texans’ first division title, Johnson remains even-keeled.
“That’s the one thing great about having a guy like that, a franchise receiver—he’s going to be here no matter what,” Myers said. “Win, lose or draw, he’s going to be that same person.”
Matt Schaub has spent five years throwing to Johnson as his primary receiver with the Texans. While Johnson has helped Schaub settle in as one of the league’s better starting quarterbacks, he has impressed his passer with the most underrated part of his game.
“I don’t know if it’s overlooked because people don’t see it every day, but it’s his work ethic,” Schaub said. “He is one of the hardest workers I’ve been around. He doesn’t talk or say a lot, but he just goes out and plays. It’s all about the team for him. When your No. 1 guy is like that, it makes everything work that much easier.”
Not that it should be a surprise, but expect Schaub and the Texans’ passing game to continue to lean heavily on Johnson in ’12. After Johnson, fellow starting wideout Kevin Walter and tight end Owen Daniels, there is big drop-off in experience within Houston’s receiving corps.
Consider that rookie Keshawn Martin, a fourth-round pick, is leading the training camp battle over several other youngsters for the No. 3 wideout job. Martin has been praised by coach Gary Kubiak for his combination of explosiveness and surprising maturity.
Johnson, with his experience and big-play history, is also doing his best to serve the Texans’ youth with his knowledge, knowing that Martin and others will be called upon to help the team move closer to its goal.
“You never think that you’re going to be the old guy, and right now I’m the oldest guy in the room,” Johnson said. “I try to go out and teach those guys everything I can because those guys have to be out there Sunday making plays to help us win.”
After enduring the two hamstring injuries last season, Johnson showed just how much pop he had left by coming back strong in the playoffs. He had a 40-yard touchdown catch in the wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals and was effective in defeat (eight receptions for 111 yards) against a good Baltimore secondary.
Even though it might seem like he’s reached the peak of playing wide receiver, he won’t be satisfied with his individual game until it factors into more sustained playoff success for the Texans.
“I’ve always been motivated to get out here and get better as a player,” Johnson said. “Football is a game I love, and whenever I’m out here, I’m going to do whatever I can to make the team become better. “
Johnson has the same football drive he’s always had. A postseason trip has just accelerated that mentality.
“Andre’s always been that quiet guy, but you could get a sense last year, when we got to the playoffs, he was that much more anxious,” Myers said. “He wants to build upon that.”
With the championship window of opportunity starting to shrink for the Texans’ best all-time player, Johnson is aware his time needs to be now—and that feeling is shared by his teammates.
“With him going into Year 10 in the league, his years are getting a little slimmer now, so he wants to be able to produce and get this team back where it’s supposed to be,” Myers said. “He’s the most tenured guy on this team, and everyone wants to win for him as well.”