Numbers are the easiest and worst way to summarize a player’s career. Andre Johnson could be neatly defined as 1,062 career receptions (ninth all-time), 14,185 yards (10th), and seven Pro Bowls — astronomical numbers that look flat written out plain like that. No one will bring up the seven wins per season he averaged in 12 years with the Texans because 1) that figure is even deader than whatever-thousand yards he racked up, and 2) that’s sad.
Numbers feel like the natural way to talk about Johnson because his entire career was consumed within the fantasy football era. He was one of the giants of America’s favorite time waster for years. He topped 100 receptions in a season five times in his career, and 1,400 yards four times.
At 6’3, roughly 220 pounds, he was a go-to end zone target, catching at least eight touchdowns in every season from 2007 through 2010. Johnson won NFL fans a lot of bragging rights and money.
But Johnson’s worth wasn’t in his numbers — not unless you’re willing to insult the man. His numbers petered off fast from his last season in Houston in 2014 through his final season-and-a-half playing for the Colts and Titans. There’s no need to revisit the figures, just know that he looked a lot like a big, old, finished wideout by the numbers, and if your fantasy league was paying attention then Johnson should have been on waivers.
Johnson’s worth was in those 12 years at seven wins per season playing in Houston. His story is the Texans’, too. He joined the franchise in its second year of existence as the No. 3 overall pick in 2003, and came to define it much more than the Texans’ No. 1 overall pick in 2002, quarterback David Carr.
Johnson caught touchdown passes from such luminaries as Carr, Tony Banks, Sage Rosenfels, Case Keenum, Ryan Lindley, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He never had a quarterback better than Matt Schaub, who was a big part of Johnson’s heyday under head coach Gary Kubiak. Together, they went 12-4 in 2012 and made the playoffs, losing in the divisional round.
Things fell apart after that. Kubiak was fired, and Schaub hit his career wall well before Johnson hit his. For a while, he and the Texans were at odds. Johnson called the 2013 and 2014 seasons “pretty miserable.” The Texans collapsed to 2-14 after that stellar 2012, and though they went 9-7 under first-year head coach Bill O’Brien, Johnson seemed to have a sense that winning a Super Bowl ring would necessitate going elsewhere.
Johnson was candid about his frustration, but couched it all in support for the franchise. He never stopped working for the Texans, even if he did want to leave. In fact, he made it easier for the Texans to cut him by mentoring a young DeAndre Hopkins.
“That was the best thing, I think, that ever could have happened,” Hopkins says of landing with Johnson. In every way, Johnson helped his protégé adjust to life as an NFL receiver. “[He taught me] how to carry yourself as a pro. How to take care of your body. How to last long in the league. I didn’t know things like you could go buy a recovery boot, and it’s a tax write-off because it’s for your job.”
Johnson was finally cut by the Texans in 2015 after the team couldn’t find a willing trade partner. The split appeared to be pretty mutual — Johnson said he hoped he could connect with a “great quarterback” and ended up with Andrew Luck.
Johnson presumably played as long as he thought he could. He was insistent before the season that he wasn’t making retirement plans, and the announcement that came in skidding on a Monday morning before the end of Week 8 corroborates that.
Johnson is retiring as one of the last of the old Texans, closing the first bittersweet chapter of the franchise’s history. He’s in practically every scene of the whole damn book on the Texans up to this point. He and another defining former Texans frontman, Arian Foster, retired within a week of one another, putting a period on what the Texans were.
Johnson gave the Texans a history, an era, even if it’s kind of a wobbly one. Like the Texans now, Johnson had mega-talent that landed softly in a grander scheme when wins didn’t result.
His impact was insular. He is likely headed for the NFL Hall of Fame and certainly for the Texans’ Ring of Honor — because of his numbers but also because of who he was. Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle described Johnson as a man who retreated into himself the longer he played in Houston, compartmentalizing his desire for a championship, and not at all in a bad way.
He could be misunderstood. He was often overlooked and taken for granted.
He was also hilarious, a locker-room clown and had one of the brightest smiles on Kirby Drive – when the doors were closed and only his real friends were around.
Johnson was one of the greatest fantasy football heroes of all time, and you’re free to appreciate him as such. His numbers meant a lot to a lot of people, but in a career in which something always seemed to be at the forefront of his mind, milestones seemed like shallow victories to Johnson. Numbers were tangible in our world, but not in his. Johnson always wanted more, and for all the difference he made in Houston, it’s still unclear whether he got what he wanted.