After playing nine games without him in 2011, the Houston Texans as well as their fans are looking forward to having their All-Pro wide receiver back in the fold for what will hopefully be a health 2012 campain.
The 31 year old Johnson had his most injury-plagued season in 2011, struggling with hamstring issues in both his right and left legs. Although the Texans were able to lean on their suffocating defense and dominant running game headed by Arian Foster and Ben Tate, no one will ever know what this team could have done had they been allowed to go through the whole season with a healthy Johnson and Matt Schaub.
A Bad Omen?
The past is the past, though, and 2012 is here. Recently, it was reported that Andre Johnson underwent minor knee surgery to clean up some mess, quite possible that white anti-awesomeness that Arian Foster speaks of. While it would be foolish to overreact to the news, as NFL players frequently have minor procedures, especially as they age, you can’t help but allow a little bit of doubt to creep into your mind.
What if Andre Johnson can’t make it through the whole season? What if there’s something more significant going on medically that we don’t know about? What if he’s on the decline already? What will the Texans do?
Now let me be clear. I’m an optimist in every sense of the word. I don’t mean to come across as some type of doomsday prepper. But with all the problems AJ has had with his wheels, I can all but guarantee you that the Texans’ coaching staff has evaluated what life will be like this season if Andre Johnson were to go down.
Life Without A.J.?
Coach Kubiak undoubtedly has a plan, and Rick Dennison will do everything he can to get creative with the pieces they’ve been given, but one has to wonder: Did they front office do enough this offseason to protect the team from a worst case scenario… A season ending injury to Andre Johnson?
The good news is, the Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson connection is no longer the sole focal point of the Texans’ offense; Arian Foster and the running game is. Losing Andre Johnson in the 2010 season would have been catastrophic. Losing him in 2011 hurt, but it didn’t cripple the Texans.
The bad news is, Andre Johnson is nonetheless a critical component to the Texans’ offense if they expect to have any firepower whatsoever. His ability to stretch the field and demand double coverage creates a myriad of fun options with which to play with for offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
Andre Johnson also brings another element to the table that just can’t be replaced, and that is his ability to make catches that only three or four other receivers in the NFL can make. When all else fails for Matt Schaub, simply throw the ball up to Andre Johnson in the red zone, and there’s a pretty good chance he’ll make a spectacular play.
Johnson also brings the ability to make game breaking plays. While Arian Foster gets his fair share of long touchdown runs and receptions, Andre Johnson has been doing it for years and years.
Consider this list of #1 receivers from each of the 2011 NFL playoff teams:
Detriot Lions: Calvin Johnson
Green Bay Packers: Greg Jennings
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace
New Orleans Saints: Marques Colston
New England Patriots: Wes Welker
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green
Denver Broncos: Demaryius Thomas
Atlanta Falcons: Roddy White
New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks
San Francisco 49ers: Michael Crabtree
With the exception of Michael Crabtree, each of these receivers are Pro Bowlers. Even Crabtree was a top 10 draft pick, albeit he has certainly failed to live up to the hype with which he entered the league. But the 49ers also had Vernon Davis, one of the most electric tight ends in the NFL.
Next in line for the Houston Texans would be Kevin Walter, who couldn’t get separation running routes against a tree.
By no means is this an article to bash Kevin Walter. He fills his role admirably and brings a lot to the table for the Houston Texans, but the key word for Kevin Walter is role, because he is nothing more than a role player who does a good job run blocking and making the catches he’s asked to make.
Outside of Walter, not a single receiver currently on the roster has made a catch in the NFL. You can get as excited as you want about the futures of Devier Posey, Keshawn Martin, and Lestar Jean, but they are unproven commodities who will likely have a fairly large learning curve in adjusting to life in the NFL. Expecting any of those players to step up and fill the shoes of Andre Johnson in the event of an injury would be asking too much.
There’s a reason that each of the 2011 NFL playoff teams all have Pro Bowl talent in their receiving corps. It is no coincidence. Consequently, there’s also reason to be worried in the event of an Andre Johnson injury for the Houston Texans.
While the Texans did a good job of plugging holes and drafting for value in each round of the 2012 NFL Draft, one can’t help but wonder whether the Texans made a mistake in not placing a higher priority on upgrading the wide receiver position. Can the Houston Texans realistically expect to make the playoffs without Andre Johnson? Probably.
But I would challenge anyone who would say the Texans can make a deep playoff run in 2012 without him. Arian Foster may be the steam engine that makes this offense go, and Matt Schaub may be the conductor that keeps the train on the tracks, but Andre Johnson is the fuel the train needs to make it to its final destination, and that destination is the Super Bowl.
Don’t be alarmed, because I don’t know anything you don’t know, but without Andre Johnson, the Texans will turn into the Little Engine That Can’t.
Jared Huntley is a Staff Writer for Rattle and Hum Sports, covering the NFL and MLB. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org