EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was the featured story in the *Houston Texans Gameday *magazine for the Texans' Week 14 game against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 13.
Try as they may, opposing defenses can't seem to find a way to stop Andre Johnson. Neither, it turns out, can ankle injuries.
Johnson has been playing through a high-ankle sprain in his right foot since Week 2. The injury kept him on the sidelines in Week 4 at Oakland, and painkilling shots have become a part of Johnson's gameday routine. Yet through 12 games, he ranks fourth in the NFL with 71 catches and 1,018 receiving yards.
"I think he's been absolutely amazing," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think it's kind of flown under the radar. This guy has played with a hurt ankle all year long, except for opening day. He's missed a game-and-a-half, really played limping around for almost a month, and yet he's sitting there in the top four or five guys in the league as a receiver. I'm amazed. I really am… For him to give it up for his team has been incredible."
In the Texans' last game, Johnson aggravated his ankle injury early in the first quarter at Philadelphia. The pain was so bad that he could barely walk after being dragged down by his facemask on a reverse. But as he had in previous games, Johnson limped off the field and missed only a handful of plays before returning. He finished the game with six catches for 149 yards.
"I just try to do everything I can to help the team win games on Sunday," Johnson said, shrugging off his Superman ways. "That's pretty much it. I'm going to do whatever I have to do as far as rehab. I can deal with the pain. I'm just going to go out there and keep playing. It doesn't matter how many times I re-tweak it or whatever, I'm going to keep playing. The only thing that's going to keep me from playing is if it's broken."
With four games remaining, Johnson has a chance to join Jerry Rice (1993-95) as the only players ever to lead the NFL in receiving in three consecutive seasons.
Johnson already is the only player besides Rice to lead the league in receiving yards in back-to-back seasons. His position coach with the Texans, Larry Kirksey, also coached Rice when he accomplished the feat.
"They're two totally different players," said Kirksey, the 49ers' receivers coach from 1994-99. "One is more finesse (Rice) and the other one is more physical and power (Johnson), but they're two great competitors. They both want the ball.
"Their hands are very similar. The speed, it's different from the standpoint that Jerry played faster than his speed, whereas Andre is faster. They both had run after the catch, which is important in this league, and Andre last year improved upon that aspect of his game. They're two different receivers, like I said, but at the same time, they play the position the way it's meant to be played."
Kirksey still has old clips of Rice from games and practice, which he and Johnson have sat down and watched together on several occasions.
"A lot of times in the film study, I'll say, 'Andre, what do you think about this?'" Kirksey said. "He'll say, 'Well, Coach, I should work inside a little bit more; I should've outside released.' He's getting the big picture. He's at that point in his game."
It's a long way from where Johnson was as a freshman at the University of Miami, where he joined a star-studded receiving corps in 1999.
"The thing about Andre was, when he got there, he was a little bit uncoordinated," said Curtis Johnson, Andre's position coach at Miami. "One day we were running routes, and he went to catch a curl route. The ball went through his hands, hit him in the helmet, bounced up and then came back and hit him back on the head again. It was the funniest thing, and I've got it on film.
"But Andre was always overly talented. You knew Reggie Wayne's going to catch the ball and Santana Moss is going to run by guys. We had some other guys, too. So he was watching them and saying, 'Golly, where do I fit?'
"Well, he fit right in with them. Those guys knew. I'd ask them, 'Who's the best guy (among the group)?' Reggie and Santana would say, 'Man, Andre, Andre – Andre is going to be the best.' I'd say, 'Don't you ever tell him that, now.' But he's something else, though."
Now the wide receivers coach of the New Orleans Saints, Curtis Johnson still marvels at what his former pupil can do.
"He's a freak of nature," Johnson said. "When have you ever seen a guy about 6-2 weigh 230 pounds and run a 4.3 40? It's unheard of. Before Andre was at Miami, I thought Santana Moss was the fastest man I'd ever seen in person. Well, Andre went out the next spring and broke Santana's record in the 60-yard dash in the Big East. He may have been the fastest guy in the whole Big East. Andre is that type of athlete."
Andre Johnson has matched that athleticism with a relentless work ethic, and the results have been a spectacular NFL career. He has been to four Pro Bowls since the Texans drafted him third overall in 2003. He has averaged 79.3 receiving yards per game in his career, the highest average in league history among players with at least 100 games played.
"He's tremendous, but he's tremendous because he's a worker," Kubiak said. "It's not just some God-given ability that he doesn't have to do anything. He works hard at what he does. Part of our success is getting him involved and getting him the ball, and it's really a challenge because people do a lot of crazy things to him. The fact that Andre's a smart football player helps us, because we can do a lot of things with him."
By "crazy things," Kubiak means the broad scope of coverages that defenses throw at Johnson. You could call it the kitchen sink, but even that might be an understatement.
"We practice all week, and then we play a game and we see coverages that there's no way we'd practice them because they just don't exist when you're watching film," Kubiak said. "So we have to adjust and we have to move Andre enough as a football team so that people aren't able to do too many things. But that's a credit to him. Some of the stuff that he sees on Sunday, he doesn't get frustrated. He just keeps on playing."
Texans quarterback Matt Schuab is equally impressed.
"Especially toward the end of last season, you started to see some coverages that people scheme up – we call them 'junk defenses' because they're not orthodox, they're not sound as far as versus the run game and versus certain pass games," Schaub said. "But he has the ability and the skills to still beat those coverages and find a way to get open."
Johnson said that the relentless defensive scheming against him doesn't get exhausting. Much like his ankle injury, he's used to it by now.
"I just try to find ways to work around it," he said. "That's something I'll never make an excuse about, 'Hey, I was doubled, so that's why I didn't catch a pass' or anything like that. If the ball is thrown my way, I'm going to do everything I can to try to catch it. I don't care how many people are on me. I just go out and play, and whatever the scheme is, we just try to find a way to beat it."