Andre Johnson answers his 'doubters' with spectacular streak

HOUSTON—At first, Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson heard the whispers. As his frustration grew, the whispers became shouts, but he kept quiet. He knew the real reason he had only nine catches for 164 yards over a four-game stretch early in the season.

Fans and media insisted Johnson’s career was coming to an end. They pointed to his puny statistics, so very un-Johnson like, as mounting evidence. Yes, Johnson had started the season with eight catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in a victory over Miami, but then, the critics claimed, Johnson hit that proverbial wall that slows so many veterans, no matter how talented they were or how much they had accomplished.

Johnson, who turned 31 in July, knew a lingering groin injury that had slowed him in training camp had not healed. Combined with the two hamstring injuries that limited him to seven games and 33 catches for 492 yards in 2011, and it was easy to see why so many thought Johnson was nearing the end of a magnificent run as one of the NFL’s premier receivers.

“You’re going to have doubters, no matter what you do, because that’s the nature of this business,” Johnson said, standing in front of his locker. “People have their own opinions. I knew what a lot of people were saying, but I also knew what was going on. I knew it was only a matter of time, a matter of getting healthy.”
And then Johnson did get healthy, and then his performance took off again. Since that four-game stretch that brought out the “doubters,” as Johnson calls them, he has averaged 8.4 catches and 119.6 yards per game.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” Johnson said. “I feel like my explosion came back. That’s a big part of my game, so I feel a lot better than I did at the beginning.”
Johnson is coming off the best eight-game stretch of his illustrious career, with 68 catches for 1,002 yards. The doubters have gone silent.

“He never ceases to amaze me,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “What I’ve seen him do has been spectacular. It just goes to show everything he’s been through with the health issues. He worked so hard to get back, and now he’s back and playing as well as anytime in his career. He’s playing with a ton of confidence.

“I’ve been fortunate to (coach) receivers like Jerry Rice (at San Francisco) and Rod Smith (Denver), and Andre’s like them. They don’t just walk on the field and make it happen without putting in a lot of hard work to get there.”

With 93 catches for 1,360 yards this season, Johnson needs seven receptions and 140 yards to join Marvin Harrison as the only receivers with at least 100 catches and 1,500 yards in three seasons. Johnson also could join Rice as the only receivers with 100 catches and 1,500 yards in their 10th season or later.
“It’s fun to be a part of his legacy, to witness it firsthand,” running back Arian Foster said. “He’s going to continue to play at a high level because that’s what he’s been doing for years. To see him work has been inspiring for me and my career.

“I’m so happy for him because I see how much work he puts into his craft. Injuries are a part of the game. They’re going to happen to everyone that plays this game. It’s about how you deal with them, and he bounced back incredibly well. He deserves everything he has.”

Just how great has Johnson (6-3, 230) been? He has averaged 5.88 catches per game, the most in NFL history for players with at least 500 receptions. Harrison is second with 5.80. Since Kubiak became his head coach in 2006, Johnson has averaged 6.5 catches per game.

“I’m glad I don’t have to go against him anymore,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “Every week, he gets the ultimate compliment because of what defenses do to try to stop him.”

Johnson lines up wide to both sides and in the slot. He also starts in the backfield and goes in motion. There have been times when Kubiak has him shift into the backfield and run his route from there.

Johnson still runs well. He’s strong off the line of scrimmage. He runs precise routes. He can outjump smaller cornerbacks. He has amazing concentration when the ball’s in the air. His strong, quick hands allow him to snatch the ball from defenders.

“Defenses try to take him away from our offense, and we try to do some things in our scheme to get him open,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “I always want to know where Andre is.

“He’s the ultimate security blanket. When we need a play, I’m going in his direction. We see all types of coverages, but when push comes to shove, I’ll still go to him because I know he’s going to make a play on the ball. I have the utmost confidence in what he can do.

“I’ve been watching him up close and personal for six years, but every time I think I’ve seen it all, he outdoes himself. He continues to wow me. It’s remarkable to see what he’s done this season. You can see he’s taken his game to a new level.”

Over the last six seasons, Johnson’s average of 90.2 yards per game is the NFL’s best. Detroit's Calvin Johnson is second at 83.8.

Before he became the Lions’ coach, Jim Schwartz was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator. That meant he had to game-plan for Johnson two times a season. Schwartz sees a lot of similarities between Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson, who rank first and third in yards this season. Calvin Johnson is 182 yards short of breaking Rice’s season record of 1,848, set in 1995.

“Everybody knows what great players they are,” Schwartz said. “The thing that’s similar about them other than the size and their production is the fact that they’re team-first guys. They’re willing to do all the little things that maybe get unnoticed when you’re getting 117 yards a game. They’re good team players and extremely hard workers.

“With all the stereotypical diva wide receivers, these two guys are old-school receivers. They do their job. Both of them block very well. Both of them can make you pay down the field with deep balls, but they both also catch short passes and run after the catch.”

The Lions have firsthand knowledge about the kind of season Andre Johnson is having, as he caught nine passes for 188 yards in the Texans’ 34-31 overtime victory at Ford Field. Coupled with the previous game—a 43-37 OT victory over Jacksonville—and Johnson’s two-game total of 461 yards was the most prolific in NFL history.

“He’s been doing it for a long time, and I’ve definitely been looking up to what he’s been doing,” Calvin Johnson said. “I’ve been watching him since before I came into this league. I like the physicality he brings to the game. I like the way he makes his presence known.”

Ever since he came to the Texans with the third overall pick in the 2003 draft, Johnson’s presence has been felt. He’s the only receiver to have at least 60 catches in each of his first eight seasons.

Since 1970, Johnson and Wes Welker have put up the most games with at least 10 catches and 100 yards—16. Johnson is the third-fastest receiver to reach 11,000 yards (11,016) behind Rice and Torry Holt.

“I’ve been around this league a long time, and I’ve been fortunate to be with some Hall of Fame players, and I think you’re looking at one,” Kubiak said. “He’s a special player and a special person with an incredible work ethic. He’s the ‘go’ for this team. And he’s money.

“He’s a big-time leader, a quiet leader by example most of the time. But when he talks in front of the team, everybody listens. We tell all the young guys to watch the way he handles himself in practice, meetings and the dressing room. He’s a worker, a class act. Everybody looks to him.

“I think the most impressive thing about Andre is how committed he’s been to this organization through some very tough times. He’s stuck with this organization to get into the position it is now.”

The Texans are 12-2 and AFC South champions for the second consecutive season. If they defeat Minnesota at Reliant Stadium on Sunday, they’ll earn home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

“It’s just a great feeling because of what I’ve been through with the organization,” Johnson said about the Texans’ quest to reach their first Super Bowl. “This is something we’ve been working for around here for a long time, to put ourselves in a situation like this.

“I didn’t think it’d take 10 seasons for it to happen, though. I’m just enjoying every moment of it.”

In his first eight seasons, Johnson was forced to watch the playoffs on television. Fans and media wanted to know why he never asked for a trade or even complained publicly about the constant losing.

“There’s always frustration, and I think that’s the thing that makes you grow as a player, as a person,” he said. “You kind of find out a lot about yourself, if you’re going to be loyal or if you’re just going to run away from it. My thing was I wanted to stay. I wanted to be a part of something special. I wanted to help this organization get to where it is right now and even help it achieve more.”

Johnson was healthy last season for the first playoff victory in team history, against Cincinnati, and the seven-point loss at Baltimore. He had 13 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown in those two games.

When the Texans begin the playoffs this season, Johnson wants to pick up where he left off.

“We’re learning as we go through this experience, but we know every game gets bigger,” he said. “Just having that experience from last year is so important because we know what to expect.”

Clinching a second consecutive AFC South title isn’t enough for the Texans.

“Last season, we’d never done it before, but we’re familiar with it now, and we have bigger goals,” Johnson said. “This is the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been here. And I don’t want it to stop.”

Johnson hopes it won’t stop until the Texans reach their first Super Bowl. And, later, membership for him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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