HOUSTON -- They talk about Andre Johnson a little bit differently now. For most of a decade he was the only thing the Houston Texans could ever really count on. For almost all of his nine seasons he has been one of the best two or three wide receivers in the NFL and the thought was that, man, if the Texans could ever get a team around him
But entering year 10 there is, for the first time, serious doubt. When you listen to coach Gary Kubiak talk about a play Johnson made in the Texans' last preseason game, it is easy to imagine he is talking about some rookie.
"He made a great play, boy, on that one play, tremendous play coming back and getting the ball," Kubiak said. "He had a catch earlier in the game. He needed that because of camp and missed time."
He needed that. He needed to make a play in an exhibition game.
Sounds crazy. Isn't crazy.
Johnson has played in just 22 of the Texans' last 34 games. He had just 33 catches for 492 yards and two touchdowns in just seven regular-season games last season, which was easily his worst season. He had knee surgery in the offseason and has been nursing a groin pull this training camp. He also had injuries to both hamstrings last year and there is just no way around it anymore we are forced to look at Johnson as a declining player.
Yet people don't seem eager to do that. People don't seem as eager to declare Johnson washed up as they did with Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson or Randy Moss.
This has a lot to do with Johnson's persona. He has kept his mouth shut for 10 years. He has never been in trouble with the league or the law. And even when he did get into a fistfight on the field, he had the good sense to make sure it was against Cortland Finnegan.
He's the wide receiver everyone can agree on, the football version of Will Smith.
Except that it feels like the football world at large is just getting to know him after 10 years. There seems to be a sense that, unless you are a fan of one of the Texan's rivals, you will feel a little bit cheated if you never get to see Johnson in a bunch of big games over the course of three or four years, making a serious run at the Super Bowl.
How sad would it be if Andre Johnson came and went and nothing ever really happened?
And you'd better believe the Texans are nervous. They're treating him like a gimpy race horse. He gets not a single repetition more than is completely necessary, because with Johnson the biggest problems have not been with his joints, they've been with his connective tissues hamstrings and groin muscles, the kind of stuff that seems to come and go according to its own whims. The kind of stuff that's a little less elastic at 31 than it was at 27.
"They don't let anybody touch me at practice," he said.
It kills him inside. You can tell. Johnson is a football player's football player. And when he thought about playing in that first preseason game, he wasn't thinking about making some great catch.
"I just wanted to get hit," he said.
There will, of course, be just two more weeks of this. Then it's showtime. The regular season. And despite all the progress the franchise has made, the Texans still need Johnson to be a superstar.
By most standards, their No. 2 wide receiver, Kevin Walter, is really more of a No. 3. He's a reliable possession guy, but not a playmaker. The Texans took two receivers in the draft this year, but waited until the middle rounds to do it. There is no heir.
Which is to say that the Texans' status as a Super Bowl contender is conditional. With Johnson in the lineup they are as balanced and explosive an offense as there is in the NFL. Without him they are a "run it, stop the run and play the field position game" kind of team.
So you wonder just how much longer they have him. How long is this window of theirs?
Wide receiver is one of the positions at which guys can succeed into their 30s. Moss had a 1,200-yard season at 32. From age 33-35 Owens averaged nearly 1,200 yards. Chad Johnson had a 1,000-yard season at age 31.
Unlike with other positions, particularly running back, 30 is not necessarily a turning point for wide receivers.
Still, there is an urgency now. Johnson is the only franchise player in Houston Texans history, and the black is starting to fade in from the corners on this era. Maybe it's three more years. Maybe it's two. Maybe it's now or never.
Saturday night, there was that flash. The fans had not seen him play since the playoffs and this was his first game since the knee surgery. Nobody knew was to expect.
And then the Texans went for it. They sent him deep on a double move. The ball went up and somebody was going to have to win it in the air. The corner came over to intercept it.
Guess who won.
"I guess he just thought the ball was going to come and fall in his lap," Johnson said.