HOUSTON — Andre Johnson awoke in Dallas on Super Bowl Sunday after spending a festive weekend with friends in February. By kickoff, he was nearly 250 miles away, not a party bowl of guacamole within reach, lollygagging alone at home in his annual playoff funk.
Voted by peers as pro football's consummate pass catcher, not even Johnson's phenomenal exploits have been able to steer the Houston Texans to the playoffs. After slumping to a 6-10 record in 2010, Houston remains the only NFL franchise not to have advanced to the postseason since beginning play in 2002.
"This is what eats at me every day," says the soft-spoken wide receiver in a baritone voice. "I knew when I was drafted (in 2003) I was coming to an (expansion) organization. I knew it would not happen overnight. But I did not think it would take this long. I think about it every day. When I say every day, I mean … every … single … day."
That makes eight interminably long years for one of the NFL's most highly accomplished — yet underappreciated and understated — assets. Johnson is no diva, tweeter or brand builder, just "hands-down the best receiver in the league," says cornerback Melvin Bullitt of the rival Indianapolis Colts.
The highest-paid receiver in history "has done everything for the (Texans) franchise; no one knows his name," says Baltimore Ravens fullback Vonta Leach, a former teammate.
Defenses do. Johnson, 30, is a fearless playmaker with freakish athletic ability, including a high tolerance for pain. Johnson is not the least bit queasy regarding the real possibility of violent, rush-hour-like collisions in the secondary. As he reasons, "You are going to get hit anyway. So you might as well catch it."
Johnson played with a high-ankle sprain most of last season and was voted to his fifth Pro Bowl and fourth all-pro honor. Injured in Week 2, he finished with 86 catches for 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing three games — including the last two when doctors advised him to shut it down.
"Putting up those numbers, on one foot, tells (you) what he is all about; he is a phenomenal player," Texans coach Gary Kubiak says.
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub says there were many occasions when Johnson's ankle "was tweaked, and he would get a (pain-numbing) shot and go back out. Andre is a tough guy who sells out for his team."
The reason: His determination to be the greatest. Ever.
Maybe that's one reason, as a prep player at Miami Senior High, his first tattoo was of a lion with a football in his mouth underscored by “Hungry.”
"(Hall of Fame receiver) Jerry Rice has set a plateau that probably never, ever will be duplicated," Johnson says. "But when I walk away from this game, I want people to say that Andre Johnson was the best receiver to ever have played."Big numbers, low profile
Only Rice and Johnson have led the league in receiving yards in back-to-back seasons since 1960. This summer, NFL players voted the big Texan the league's seventh-best player overall.
Respected? Unquestionably. Chad Ochocinco-like, over-the-top personality? Sorry, wrong dude.
In 2010, sales for Johnson's No. 80 jersey ranked 44th among NFL players and, incredibly, No. 8 among receivers. The Texans' playoff drought is one reason. So is Johnson's indifference to personal outlandishness and a lack of self-promotion. He'd rather attend a high school football game or spend time with daughter, Kylie, 2.
"I don't think the guy even has a touchdown dance," marvels Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton of CBS Radio.
He sometimes spikes the ball, but mostly hugs his teammates and beelines for the sideline. Not that he is anti-flamboyant.
"Sometimes," he says, "I look forward to going home and watching ESPN to see what someone does (outrageously), so I can laugh. But it isn't me."
It was his shocking slugfest with Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan in 2010 that earned him unwanted notoriety. The players were kicked out of the game and each fined $25,000. Johnson apologized.
"More people know him more for the Finnegan fight than the play of Andre Johnson," Leach says. "He doesn't say much. He just goes about his business, a true professional. He chooses to make noise with his play."
Johnson is a rare, defense-sapping combination of a powerful, 6-2, 228-pound receiver who, Bullitt says, "has the size of a (pass-rushing) defensive end, the speed of a cornerback and the hands of a wide receiver."
The Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White, the NFL's leader in catches in 2010, jokingly says Johnson is "so big, so strong and runs so fast, that it's kind of unfair."
Johnson's 79.7-yard per-game career average is best in NFL history among players with at least 100 games. The only player in league history with 60 or more catches in each of his first eight seasons, Johnson often confronts sticky double coverage and brutal hits. His toughness and explosiveness enable him to turn routine catches into wide swaths of real estate.
Texans receivers coach Larry Kirksey, who coached Rice and Terrell Owens in San Francisco, calls Johnson a mixture of them.
"He is smart, and he understands the game. And he plays the game the way it is meant to be played," by playing all-out.
A prime example came in Week 13 at the Philadelphia Eagles. Four days after the Finnegan fiasco, Johnson displayed the right kind of playoff fight for a desperate team. With Houston trailing before halftime, he reinjured his ankle, telling trainers, "I think I'm done for the season." Johnson got a painkilling injection at halftime.
"He came out (because he) knew we needed him; it was do-or-die for us," Schaub says.
With the Texans trailing 20-10, Johnson returned in the second half and finished the game with six catches for 149 yards. The Texans rallied to take a 24-20 lead but lost 34-24.
"Yeah, I hate to say it, but there are some guys who (play just for money)," Johnson says. "They really don't care if they win or they lose. They just want to collect a check. If I ever got to that point, I would retire."Keeping his head high
While he appears years from that eventuality, the injury bug stung Johnson in training camp. Leaping for a pass, the ball deflected off his left hand and dislocated the index finger.
"When I looked at it, it was kind of ugly, so I popped it back into place," he said. "But when I took my glove off, the blood started running out," because the bone broke the skin. "If I were able to play on a bum ankle, there is no way a finger is going to keep me down."
A day after the injury, Johnson found humor in his plight. As he strolled down a hallway, his tender, heavily bandaged finger was caught up in a pair of sandals carried by third-year running back Chris Ogbonnaya.
"He started pulling me along, and I was like, 'Whoa, whoa!' " Johnson says. "He said, 'Sorry, man, my bad.' We just laughed."
Johnson has had too few days to smile about since the Texans drafted the ex-Miami (Fla.) star with the third overall pick. At Miami, Johnson was accustomed to playing after the regular season. He was a Rose Bowl MVP. But it would take until 2009 before Johnson played on another winner: the 9-7 Texans.
Last summer, the Texans rewarded Johnson with a two-year, $23.5 million contract extension, including a guaranteed $13 million that keeps him in Houston until 2016. But at what price to a very determined man?
"I hate watching the postseason," he says. "I think, 'Man, when is our time coming?' "Click here to order Andre Johnson’s proCane Rookie Card.