EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the featured in the *Texans Gameday magazine for today's Week 13 Texans-Falcons game on Deep Steel Sunday at Reliant Stadium.*
It has been one of the most frustrating and equally rewarding seasons of Andre Johnson's career with the Texans.
Rewarding is: seeing the franchise that has gone through epic struggles just to be mediocre in its brief history finally get all the pieces in place, win five games in a row and have a share of the best record in the AFC (8-3) after 11 games.
Frustrating is: seeing key members of the team lost due to injuries, including Johnson himself for six games with a hamstring that healed so agonizingly slow. Johnson has watched the Texans' starting quarterback role shift from Matt Schaub to third-string rookie T.J. Yates in the last two games.
Backup Matt Leinart lasted less than two quarters last Sunday against Jacksonville before he was lost with a broken collarbone, prompting Yates to come on for his NFL debut. Now, Johnson must learn to work with a raw but willing rookie who is making his first-career start today against the Falcons.
"Unfortunately, we have another obstacle we have to overcome," Johnson said. "It seems like we're just losing players left and right. T.J. came in and did a good job for us. It's kind of crazy how we're losing players, but somehow we keep finding a way to overcome."
Even amid the chaos of revolving quarterbacks, Johnson managed to move up the record charts in his first game back against Jacksonville. He caught two passes for 22 yards to reach 700 receptions for his career and move past Gary Clark for 34th on the NFL's all-time list.
Johnson became the second-fastest player to reach 700 career catches. He did it in 120 career games. Marvin Harrison did it in 114 games.
Still, it was far less than Johnson anticipated for his return. He got only three looks and didn't catch his first pass until the third quarter. He had spent the previous week, a bye, getting used to the left-handed passes of Leinart, who appeared ready to lead the Texans in Schaub's absence.
"He took a step forward," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of Johnson. "It's going to take a few weeks for him to get back to himself, but for the progress he's made to play and come out of the game OK, I feel good about that."
This is Johnson's first game at Reliant Stadium since he injured his hamstring in Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His scary fall to the field that day was followed soon after by surgery on his right leg. He spent the next several weeks rehabbing and eagerly awaiting his return to the lineup.
After his first full practice two weeks ago before the Jacksonville game, Johnson felt like he had landed on a distant planet.
"I felt like I hadn't played football in years," Johnson said. "I felt like I was out there running around like a chicken with my head cut off."
Wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey has never been disappointed in Johnson's ability to battle back. His mere presence in the huddle uplifts the team.
"The guys are excited about him being out here, and that shows the impact he has on this football team," Kirksey said. "He comes out, he hasn't missed a day and he works hard. He's glad to be back.
"He hadn't done anything in six weeks, so he'll be a little rusty in some areas, but he has to polish some things up. But his mindset is that he's 100 percent, and he looks pretty good."
Arian Foster writes poetry, and his prose isn't too bad, either, when he says, "Andre Johnson is the best football player in the world."
That's a pretty bold statement, but one that won't get much argument in the Texans' locker room.
Johnson led the NFL in receiving yards in 2008 with 1,575 and again in 2009 with 1,569 yards. That put him in the record books with Jerry Rice as the only two receivers to lead the league in receiving yards in consecutive years. He also became the only receiver besides Harrison with consecutive 1,500-yard seasons. He has been selected to five Pro Bowls and twice been named a first-team All-Pro.
"He's the man of this franchise, and we (needed) him back," wide receiver Kevin Walter said. "It's great just having him in the huddle. The whole team, when he's in the huddle, when he's catching footballs, this team is excited. This team has been playing well these last few weeks without him, and it going to be better with him."
Johnson is the only remaining player on the team from before Gary Kubiak took over in 2006. That means he has experienced some ugly football in his time in Houston.
The team finally gets it going this season, and Johnson had to stand on the sidelines wearing a towel over his head and a wish-I could-be-out-there expression for six games.
"It was a lot of frustrating times, but I'm back on the field and feeling good," Johnson said. "It feels good to be back on the field with my teammates, running around making plays. I'm excited."
Johnson's excitement was somewhat muted by the loss of Schaub, with whom he has formed one of the most prolific pass-catch combos in the NFL since Schaub joined the team in 2007.
The Texans have withstood injuries to key player after key player this season. Foster (hamstring) missed two of the first three games. Linebacker Mario Williams (chest) is out for the season, and free safety Danieal Manning (fibula) missed three games before returning last Sunday.
"In the past, when things like that happen where you have a guy go down, we weren't very successful," Johnson said. "I think this year, adding the new pieces that we've added to the team, the whole attitude of the team is just different than it has been the past few years."
Still, losing Schaub caused a special pain for Johnson because they have worked so closely together.
"It's different when you're dealing with a guy for that long," Johnson said. "You kind of know each other. You could be out for a few games and when you come back, it's just like riding a bike because you know what each other are thinking."
A week ago, Johnson was prepared to establish that bond with Leinart. Now, he has to work on doing so with Yates.
On the field and off, Johnson goes about his business quietly. He ambles through the team locker room, his flip-flops dragging on the floor, quite a contrast from his quick, razor sharp cuts on the field.
He reputedly has the deepest bass voice on the team, and when he speaks, you are tempted to adjust the treble knob.
But when he speaks, his teammates listen. And so do his coaches.
"He doesn't talk much, but every once in a while, he'll say something that makes you know he's ready to go," Kirksey said. "If he says he's ready to go, then he's ready to go.
"He's said that this team has played well without him and that he's got to catch up to the pace these guys have been playing. He's been there before. He's the consummate pro. He does everything right in preparing. He wants to get to the playoffs and beyond."
The Texans are deeper, more talented and in a better position to make the playoffs than they've ever been. Johnson has been waiting for this type of team since 2003, when the Texans drafted him third overall out of Miami.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "At the same time, we have to stay focused on the task at hand. The biggest thing is just winning this game Sunday. The motto hasn't changed. We're trying to go 1-0 every week, and so that's what we're going to try to do on Sunday.
"We're in a great position. Everybody knows that. We're going to try and do everything we can to make sure we are the top team in the AFC when it's all over."
Now that would be rewarding.
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 sports.