ANDERSON, Ind.—In 12 NFL seasons, Andre Johnson never had this. Not even close. The personal honors and accomplishments came in droves in Houston. But every day since he became an Indianapolis Colt, he catches himself realizing this is by far the best quarterback he’s ever played with, and this is the best team he’s ever played on. And that’s when he remembers why leaving Houston might wind up being the best thing that ever happened to him in football.
The greatest player to ever wear the Texans uniform isn’t the face of a franchise any more. But it’s a happy-go-lucky face he wears, because of the guy who already fills that role in Indianapolis, and how Andrew Luck puts him closer than ever to the career-capping dream of winning a Super Bowl. Johnson never really thought it’d come to this, but now he’s eminently glad it did. For years he and his Houston teammates chased these Colts—first against Peyton Manning and then against his replacement—and now he’s among them, finding out just how good life is on the other side.
“After you’ve been somewhere so long, you never think you’ll join another team,” said Johnson on Sunday in Colts’ training camp at Anderson University, minutes after the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver left the practice field. “And then, to actually be on the team you’ve had a hard time beating, it’s kind of crazy.”
Crazy equals crazy good in this case. Whatever joy had been drained from the game for Johnson in his last two years in Houston has returned. In force. With Texans head coach Bill O’Brien planning on diminishing his role in 2015, Johnson sought and was granted his release in March. And then he set his sights on joining Indianapolis, the team—and former AFC South rival—he identified as having the best possible road to the Super Bowl. It’s the most important go route Johnson has ever run, and the journey seems to have rejuvenated him.
“I think he already loves this team, that’s evident,” said Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, seated behind the wheel of a golf cart just before practice begins. “He kind of lights up just talking about it. It’s energized him, because of the culture of winning here, and I think just playing with Andrew is something that’s really excited him. He’s working his tail off out here.”
Johnson sounds like a kid at Disney World when the topic turns to Luck, the Colts' fourth-year franchise quarterback who has led Indy to a 33–15 regular-season record and three playoff wins in his first three NFL seasons. After just two playoffs trips and two postseason wins in his dozen years spent in Houston, Johnson sounds almost in awe of how far Luck has come so quickly. The Texans never went beyond the divisional round in the postseason with Johnson, but Luck and Colts ended last season in the AFC Championship Game, and have successfully climbed another playoff rung each year since Luck arrived.
After years of playing with the likes of David Carr, Matt Schaub, Sage Rosenfels, Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, Johnson almost can’t believe his good fortune of finding Luck in his huddle. It makes him feel like he’s 34 going on 27.
“It’s been so much fun,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of great energy on this team. It’s a fun group of guys, and it’s a great feeling to be part of that. People always ask me about [Luck] and I tell them you’d think he’s played for 10-12 years. He’s such a young player in this league, but he’s a hell of a player. I can only imagine what his career is going to be like.
“The guy is just very, very smart, and he sees a lot. He sees things before they even happen. And that’s a great thing to have in your quarterback.”
After 1,012 catches, 13,597 receiving yards and 64 touchdowns in 169 games for the Texans, Johnson learned to see something coming before it happened as well: the end in Houston. It didn’t make it sting any less, but when O’Brien called him into his office and explained his vision for Johnson’s reduced role—fresh off an 85-catch, 936-yard showing in 15 games last year—he knew his time had come. Johnson will be in Houston’s ring of honor some day in the not-too-distant future, but he realized he would have to leave the only NFL home he had ever known to pursue the ring that he really wanted.
“After we played our last game last season, [the media] asked me did I feel like it was my last game there,” Johnson said. “I told them I didn’t, but deep down in my heart I knew it was. You hear things here and there. I just had a feeling. And when you have that gut feeling, your gut never really lets you down.
“I had that feeling that I probably wouldn’t be back, so when it happened, I really wasn’t surprised. But when you see it happen, you’re like, ‘Man, I’ve been in this place for 12 years and now it’s all over.' You build so many relationships, and it all has to go away until football season’s over.”
Johnson doesn’t sound bitter about how he and Houston divorced, but there’s still some lingering hurt which he doesn’t make much of an effort to hide. From the second season of the expansion Texans on, Johnson was synonymous with the franchise. And then, after enduring as Houston struggled for respectability, finally won, and then struggled again, he was deemed expendable.
“I just think they really didn’t know how to come at me,” Johnson said. “I just think they wanted to go in a different direction, and that was pretty much it. I would have felt better if they would have said that’s what they wanted to do. I’ve always been straightforward with them, so I felt like they should do the same. But it is what it is. I don’t really care about it too much. I’ve moved on from it. I’m here. I’m a Colt now.”
Johnson’s quick signing with the Colts, the division’s perennial powerhouse that has made the playoffs in 12 of the AFC South’s 13 seasons, was viewed as something of a revenge move by pundits and fans; the jilted veteran making sure he could come back to haunt his former team twice every season. In reality, Johnson said, it wasn’t the payday or the payback that drove him to Indy. It was the opportunity to win big, and he and his fellow new Colt, ex-49ers running back Frank Gore—old friends and onetime University of Miami teammates—even made something of a pact to reunite in Indianapolis to win a ring.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Did you come here to get back at the Texans?’” Johnson said. “That’s not what it’s about. I came here to win. I came here to win a Super Bowl. When I was in Houston, I always said I wanted to be a part of something that was built from the ground up. But then you go through that, and then after 12 seasons, there comes a point where you know your career’s almost over. What do you do?
“You go find a place and give yourself the best opportunity to try and get a ring. That’s just the way I looked at it. My decision was never based on money or anything else but, ‘Where can I go and play with a great quarterback and get a chance to go to a Super Bowl?’”
The Colts, of course, went all in this offseason in their quest for another Super Bowl berth, going on a mini-signing spree of proven veterans such as Johnson, Gore, and ex-Eagles Trent Cole and Todd Herremans. Indianapolis correctly came to the conclusion that despite going 11–5 last season, it underachieved in most of its biggest games of the year. Of the Colts’ six losses, including the playoffs, five came against teams that made the postseason (the Patriots were in there twice) and the other came against the 10–6 Eagles. The average margin of defeat in those six losses was a glaring 20.3 points. To win big games, you need big-game performers, and Johnson and Gore have track records to lean on, hopefully upgrading over aging receiver Reggie Wayne and injury-prone running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
“No, you don’t expect to be able to sign an Andre Johnson, but the harsh reality of the NFL is that it happens,” said Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who has known Johnson since he helped recruit him to the University of Miami as a Hurricanes assistant under Butch Davis. “I never wanted to say goodbye to Reggie Wayne. Nobody ever envisions the day you have to move on from people, and for every Ray Lewis ending there’s a thousand train wrecks that don’t end that way. It’s hard. But I’m really glad he’s here. Seriously.”
There’s no more chasing the Colts for Johnson. He’s caught them. And now he catches passes from none other than Andrew Luck. And together they get to chase a ring. As Johnson has quickly grasped, it’s kind of crazy how good this all might work out.