Andre Johnson: Full steam ahead

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Andre Johnson is primed for a huge 2009 season

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Sept. 13, 2009, for Houston's season opener at home against the New York Jets.

Texans All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson did his first national commercial this summer to advertise the latest in receiver's gloves. The scene was a sporting goods store where Johnson caught balls and other objects thrown at him from a jugs machine at ridiculous speeds while two gap-mouthed fans watch in awe.

Zip.

Zip.

He catches one ball behind his head with one hand and snags another ball simultaneously with his right hand at the chest. The idea, of course, is that the product helped Andre be Andre.

Johnson, admiring the gloves during the ad, says, "It's ridiculous."

His teammates have had great fun with the commercial in practice.

"If someone makes a crazy catch, someone will yell, 'He has on 'Dre gloves!' or 'It's ridiculous!'" Johnson said.

The fact is, fans and teammates see Johnson make ridiculous catches like those in the commercial for real every Sunday and during each week of practice.

"You catch yourself being in awe of the things he's able to do," quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "You know he's a guy you can trust. You know that if the ball is in the air, it's going to be caught or it's incomplete; it's not going to the other team. That's the feeling you get when you're dealing with a guy like him."

Orlovsky, a backup beginning his first season with the Texans, is beginning to see the magic Johnson can make on the football field.

Starting quarterback Matt Schaub has been enjoying Johnson's talents for two seasons.

"We hope to keep it going this season," Schaub said. "If we can stay healthy and not get nicked up at all, the sky is the limit with the weapons we have and Andre starting everything off. Everything's going to go through him. Then, we're going to work Kevin (Walter), Owen (Daniels) and Steve (Slaton) in there."

Daniels has a good seat for watching No. 80.

"It's amazing to see him every day," Daniels said. "He does something that makes your jaw drop or your eyes get wider."

It's amazing that one of the top receivers in the NFL is just now doing his first national commercial. Johnson has led the NFL in receptions two of the last three years. Last year, he was atop the stat charts with 115 catches and 1,575 yards.

Johnson has been a starter since the Texans made him the third player taken in the 2003 draft. Last season, he set an NFL record by having seven games with 10 or more catches. He tied two NFL records, one for having 10 or more catches in three consecutive games and another for getting 130 or more receiving yards in four consecutive games.

He's on the short list of the best wide receivers in the league. Debates continue: Who's better, Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald? Johnson only smiles and repeats that his only goals are team-related.

"You just have to go out and get better than you were the year before," Johnson said. "You have to work on every part of your game: catching, run blocking and doing everything you can to help your team win.

"I don't have to go catch 120 balls. If we go run the ball like we want to and the running game works well for us, maybe I end up with 60 or 70 catches and we have more wins. I would be very happy with that.

"This is the best team we've had since I've been here. We have a lot more talent built up now."

Still.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I wouldn't like to finish at the top, but winning games is more important," Johnson said. "One thing I can say about it, wide receivers, of course, we all want to be first in catches and first in yards and first in touchdowns.

{QUOTE} "That's just the attitude of a football player. You're always competing. You want to see guys do well, but at the same time you want to do better. It brings out the best in you when you compete against other guys."

Johnson is making it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame one piece of memorabilia at a time. The jersey and gloves he wore when he made his record-setting 10th catch against the Chicago Bears were sent to Canton, along with the ball he caught to clinch the record.

At this pace, he'll join those items in the Hall on the first ballot after he retires.

"He's special," coach Gary Kubiak said. "Like I say all the time, you're watching something special, watching this guy's career. He's as good as I've been around."

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has an annual admonition for his players: "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse."

Surely, this can't apply to his All-Pro wide receiver.

"I mean this, I promise: He can get a lot better," Shanahan said. "He's that talented. I thought he was the best receiver in the league last year, and I truly believe that he can be better this year.

"He was a little banged up. His knee bothered him last year, so his routes weren't as good as he wanted. He didn't get off the line as fast as he wanted. I think he'll be better at that this year, being healthy and fresher going into the year."

Johnson makes Shanahan's job easier and the task of opposing defenses almost impossible.

"He makes defenses play honest," Shanahan said. "When you've got a guy that talented, that explosive off the ball, you've got to draw defenses to him. The safety has to play over him. He can take two people out of it, and if they don't, we're coming to him.

"We can get him with play-action pass over the top or one-on-one passes outside. He does his job even if he has no balls thrown his way. If he doesn't, he is taking away the defense so we can get other people balls."

The other receivers on the team benefit from Johnson's presence.

"He's become one of the best players overall in the league – one of the best players, one of the best receivers," said Daniels, who along with Johnson earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last season. "Sharing time with him and learning from him is crucial for my job. Obviously, he gets a lot of attention out there, so it helps me and Kevin and all the other guys to get open and get some balls our way.

"We try to get some attention away from him by making the plays when we get the opportunities."

As skilled as Johnson is, he gets even higher remarks about his work ethic.

"He's a combination of great talent and, even more, how he prepares and tries to get better," Orlovsky said. "That's special at this level where you have so many top-notch guys who don't put in that effort, that desire to be great. He has that.

"He's not one of those guys who is very talented but doesn't show up during practice or work during practice. He works at his craft. That's the thing you appreciate the most. Regardless of how much talent he has, his work ethic trumps that."

Johnson completed training camp in great shape, healthy and rested. He's ready for his best season, and the team's.

"This is our best team,'' Johnson said. "We have big expectations for ourselves. We know what type of football team we can be if we go out and play. So, I'm excited about it. I think we have a lot of potential. If we play the way we're capable of playing, good things will happen for us."

Despite all of his accolades, this quiet, modest superstar was shocked that he was asked to do a commercial this summer.

"You never think about those things, think you'll be on a commercial one day," Johnson said. "I got a lot of text messages and friends calling me saying, 'Man, I just saw you on ESPN.' A lot of people really didn't know about it, but it was fun.

"It was my first time doing something like that. I think I did very well at it, and hopefully it'll open some doors up for me. Maybe I could do a couple more."

Johnson has emerged on and off the field. He's still quiet, but he is more relaxed in his own skin. He's affable with the media and fans. He signs autographs freely.

Would he have felt comfortable doing the commercial two or three years ago?

"Two to three years ago, I wasn't having the year I did last year," Johnson said. "I wouldn't say my name was really out there like it is now. Probably, if I made that commercial then, people would be asking, 'Who is that guy?'"

Of course, these days, *that *would be ridiculous.

EDITOR'S NOTE: *Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams. *

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