Andre Johnson was honest when he said that his first-career Pro Bowl trip was sweeter than the second. But that doesn't mean this year's Hawaiian vacation was uneventful for No. 80.
Johnson's star is beginning to rise in league circles and beyond, and his work this past week only further cemented his status as one of the NFL's most underrated, and up-and-coming, wide receivers.
From Johnson's third-place finish in the Best Hands competition during the Pro Bowl Skills Challenge, to his three catches for 73 yards in the AFC's win Saturday evening, he elevated his status in the eyes of his peers, many of whom already know the talent that he possesses.
For any unassuming player, such as Johnson, who doesn't attract the spotlight, it can be difficult to earn proper recognition. Add to that the fact that the Texans have yet to finish a season at .500 or above in team history, and it's no wonder that Johnson (Andre, not Chad) isn't a household name yet. Without the popularity of fantasy football, Johnson probably would receive even less adulation.
But the days of Johnson flying beneath the radar, at least compared to wideouts like Cincinnati's "Ocho Cinco," Carolina's Steve Smith or St. Louis' Torry Holt, are beginning to fade. When Johnson was elected to his first Pro Bowl after finishing the 2004 season with 79 receptions for 1,142 yards and six touchdowns, it showed that others around the league were beginning to see his talent. Johnson's selection as a starter this year after leading the league in receptions (103) is another step in the right direction.
Perhaps the most telling sign that Johnson has arrived as one of the NFL's elite was on Friday following the walkthrough practice at Aloha Stadium, when commissioner Roger Goodell walked past Johnson on the field. Goodell was being escorted to the NFL Network set when he caught a glimpse of Johnson, who was on the phone being interviewed, and interrupted him to introduce himself and tell him how he appreciated his presence in Hawaii.
The gesture was short and sweet, but it demonstrated that Johnson's accomplishments and place in the game right now are being acknowledged not only by fellow players and fans, but by some of the game's biggest opinion leaders.
Extras: I asked Johnson before the game about playing on special teams, and he didn't seem to mind that he was on the punt team and kickoff return team. It was a nice change of pace for him, and he even said that he wouldn't be opposed to playing in the kicking game for the Texans.
"I'll do special teams if I'm needed and it's going to help our team win," he said. "I'm going to do whatever I need to do to help our team win games."
For the record, I don't think coach Gary Kubiak would risk injury to his best player by including him on special teams. But never say never. Panthers coach John Fox uses Smith as a punt returner.
Speaking of punting, I can't get enough of the hit that Redskins safety Sean Taylor put on Bills punter Brian Moorman during the Pro Bowl. For those of you not watching the game, Moorman ran right on a fake punt. As he approached the sideline – well short of the first down, he cut back inside unknowingly. Taylor, arguably the best pound-for-pound hitter in the NFL, came sprinting down the sideline and leveled the hapless punter, who didn't stand a chance in the collision. Click here to watch the clip on YouTube.
Moorman lay motionless on the ground for a moment before popping up as if he were fine. Later, he claimed the hit didn't hurt as bad as it looked, but that could just be him trying to save face. No one will ever know, I suppose. I find it hard to believe that the collission didn't hurt.
Anyways, I heard from more than a few people at the game that the hit was too vicious, particularly for a postseason exhibition contest. Apparently, there is some kind of unwritten code of Pro Bowl ethics that says players should not inflict huge hits on the opposition, particularly when the other player is in a vulnerable position.
Other people complained that it was unfair of Patriots head coach Bill Belichik to call a fake punt play for Moorman, since he is a member of a division rival in the AFC East.
My opinion is that whenever you strap on the football pads, regardless of whether it's for a preseason game, the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl, you better be prepared for contact. As a defender, there is never a need for cheap shots, but Taylor's hit does not qualify in my mind as a cheap shot. That was just good, hard football. And I like it. Notice how Moorman commends Taylor on the hit afterward. No hard feelings. Just football.
As far as Belichik being criticized for calling the play, I think that is a bit off-base. I would be shocked if he intentionally called a fake punt to put Moorman in a compromising situation. That goes a bit far for me. But other conspiracy theorists might not agree with me.
Getting back to Andre in the Pro Bowl, I think he had a pretty good game, but knowing how open he was on so many different occasions - particularly in the end zone - it's a little frustrating that his final stat line wasn't longer. It's no surprise that Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne and Cincinnati's Chad Johnson got the most looks on offense, and two of the three AFC quarterbacks were the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Bengals' Carson Palmer.
Maybe it's me being selfish because Andre plays for the Texans, but I wanted him to get a few more touches. I asked him about it after the game, and he was diplomatic. He mentioned that it's tough to get on the same page with a signal-caller in less than a week of practice.
"You want to go out and get a few shots, but I was fine with what happened," he said. "I was good with the outcome."
One thing that was interesting to watch was how many different wide receiver positions Johnson played during the game. On around 50 percent of his snaps, he was lined up in the slot position.
"It's fun getting to move around a little bit and play all the positions," he said. "I did that today."
Johnson is back on the mainland now, and he doesn't have to worry about his pockets being thin because of the trip to Hawaii. The AFC won double the amount of the NFC (I believe the total is $40,000, but don't quote me on that), which is a decent chunk of change, even by NFL standards. That certainly paid for the amount of family that Johnson brought down to the Aloha State.
Asked about that, 'Dre smiled. He didn't want to sound greedy, as if money were his motivating factor, so he paused for a moment to think of the best way to sum up his feelings.
"Like I said, you always want to win," he said.
Well put. Here's to another Pro Bowl trip for Andre in 2008. Something tells me that he'll be here every February for many years to come.