By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Natural Talent
No one should shed too many tears for Andre Johnson.
He’s a celebrity professional athlete whose latest contract guarantees him $48 million, and the recent struggles of his Houston Texans are the first for his team in awhile.
As he told reporters Sunday night after the terrible-in-many-ways 27-24 loss to Indy: “I thought all of those days were over.”
But his performance (9 catches, 229 yards, three TDs) was a reminder of how good this guy is, and how long he’s been good.
So, after 11 years of greatness, why doesn’t the casual fan know his name? And why do even the NFL’s smartest fans fail to recognize just how remarkable his career has been?
With Gary Kubiak laid up and the Texans sitting at 2-6 as the season’s biggest disappointments, we offer this for the city of Houston: Andre Johnson is the most consistently underappreciated skill player in the game.
1. HIS RAW NUMBERS ARE INCREDIBLE
Even playing during an era with inflated numbers, Johnson’s stand out.
His 81.6 receiving yards per game is third all time, which is a pretty good start. His average of 6.0 receptions a game is currently No. 1 all time, which is also fairly strong I’d say.
While Calvin Johnson is considered a slam dunk as the most productive receiver in the game right now, Andre is at least in the ballpark.
- Andre: 504 receptions, 7,263 yards, 14.4 YPC, 34 TDs
- Calvin: 487 receptions, 7,901 yards, 16.2 YPC, 57 TDs
While Calvin is certainly ahead, most of it is based on touchdowns – and it’s worth noting that 39 interceptions have been thrown on balls his way, compared to 32 for Andre.
Johnson is thought of as a possession receiver, but he's been right around 14.3 yards a catch over his peak -- better than comparable WRs like Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne.
2. THE TEXANS HAVE NEVER HAD A GREAT QB
David Carr, Sage Rosenfels, Matt Schaub, Matt Leinart, T.J. Yates, Case Keenum. That’s the list of guys to start for Johnson in his career.
For years now, we’ve been debating the merits of Schaub, because he’s had good numbers but doesn’t really stand out as having “it.” Having Johnson to throw to has helped an awful lot.
Keenum looks promising in his first shot at starting, but why? Because he was able to chuck the ball successfully to a wide-open Johnson for the majority of his yards.
Despite this handicap, Johnson has been productive year in and year out, and clearly elevates the passer rating of his quarterbacks. It took the Texans years to figure out David Carr couldn’t play, mostly because Johnson’s presence made sure he’d at least put up passable numbers.
In 2007, Schaub played without Johnson from Weeks 3-8. His passer ratings: 81.3, 101.8, 74.9, 74.5, 60.9, 31.2.
Johnson returned in Week 10, Schaub put up a 112.3.
3. HE’S NEVER HAD A LEGITIMATE NO. 2 WEAPON IN THE PASSING GAME.
Owen Daniels and Kevin Walter. That’s the list of other dudes in the Houston passing game that have been productive over Johnson’s decade in Texas. And neither of them is exactly what you'd consider a building block.
All of the great pass-catchers in history have either had a Hall of Fame QB throwing to them or a Pro Bowler next to them.
As a result, teams have never had to say “Oh, shit, we can only single cover No. 80 because we’ve got to worry about Player X!” That’s a pretty big disadvantage for Johnson to play with, yet it hasn’t slowed him down for a second.
4. HE STANDS UP TO ANY ANALYSIS.
Pro Football Focus does a spectacular job of grading NFL players on their work, taking everything into account and coming up with eye-opening rankings and stats. They’re not looking at numbers, they’re looking at how good the player is playing.
According to PFF, Johnson has had exactly five games that qualify as “bad” since 2008 (a grade of -1.0 or worse), and none of them were flat-out stinkers.
In his four full seasons since 2008 (2011 was largely lost to injury), PFF ranked him No. 4, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 1. He came into the week as No. 7 this year, and will probably launch into the top five.
That’s pretty remarkable. He doesn’t drop the ball (about one every two weeks), rarely fumbles (seven in his career), doesn’t take plays off in the run game, doesn’t get called for penalties (seven total in six years).
His attitude is also remarkable – intense, but without the diva behavior that defines many NFL star wideouts. He’s got all the physical tools, and the mental ones as well, which leads to the type of consistent production that is unmatched.
5. HE’S BEEN HAMSTRUNG BY A TEAM THAT NO ONE LIKES AND A FANTASY FOOTBALL CULTURE THAT DEVALUES HIM.
We’ve been guilty of some mild A.J. bashing over the years, mostly because of his fatal flaw: he doesn’t score that many touchdowns.
Fantasy football players, which make up a huge part of the NFL fandom, always harbor a mild sense of anger toward Johnson for failing to put those big “6” spots on the board, and since he’s been a big player for so long everyone’s had him at least once.
The Texans have been extremely good running the ball in the red zone for the majority of Johnson’s peak, and it’s safe to say that many of Arian Foster’s touchdowns owe a large debt to No. 80.
Still, his career total of 59 touchdowns in 11 years is extremely low among the all-time greats, and one of the reasons he’ll never come close to GOAT status even with a bunch of 100-1500-7 seasons over the next few campaigns.
Plus, he’s a Texan. Studies have shown that 99.32 percent of NFL fans could give two shits about the Houston franchise; they’re rarely in spotlight games, and when they are good, they go nowhere.
But don’t blame Johnson for playoff struggles – in the four games he’s played, he’s been productive, translating to a full season line of 100 catches for 1,432 yards.
He’s got a nickname, “The Natural,” but no one uses it. He’s got a Twitter account (with a picture of him in civilian clothes holding his daughter), but he has only used it a few times in the past year – usually to do something classy.
Unfortunately for Johnson, nothing seems likely to change. The Texans could have to rebuild a bit here, and will be looking for quarterback answers. Even assuming Gary Kubiak’s health is fine, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back in 2013. Rookie wideout DeAndre Hopkins might be the answer at No. 2 someday, but isn’t yet.
So, he’ll have to settle for being the most underappreciated skill player of his generation. And hopefully, when his time comes, a Hall of Fame plaque that he unquestionably deserves.