It’s hard to remember now, 1,062 receptions later, but Texans coaches once worried about Andre Johnson’s hands. The knock on Johnson coming out of Miami, where the uber-athletic receiver set records and won an NCAA national title, was that he dropped too many catchable balls. So after drafting him third overall, in 2003, Houston staffers tested Johnson’s eyesight, which was worse than expected, and wrote him a prescription for contacts, which he promptly filled. “I needed them,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated at the time. “David [Carr] throws the ball so hard, and I have to have my hands ready because the ball’s right on me. Now I’m really confident I can be an impact player.”
There’s an irony to this charming origin story. Johnson, who retired on Monday after 14 seasons, will leave the NFL as one of the most consistently overlooked superstars of this, or any, era. ESPN the Magazine, back in 2009, described Johnson as having “an amazing gift for going unnoticed.” Texans fans were blessed with the opportunity to watch him up close for 12 marauding years. It’s the rest of the country who could have used an optometrist.
Let’s start with the obvious: Johnson is the best player in Texans history. (Sorry, J.J.) His counting stats are impressive on their own: 1,640 targets, 64 touchdowns, and 13,597 yards. (Owen Daniels, with 4,617 yards, is second on the Texans' all-time list.) Only eight players in NFL history caught more balls, and only nine generated more yardage through the air. Of the guys who pop up as comps for Johnson on Football Reference, meaning their career arcs were of “similar quality and shape,” you’ll find Hall of Famers Andre Reed, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, and Steve Largent. The seven-time Pro Bowler played like a work-a-day receiver trapped inside the body of a genetic freak.
More impressive was Johnson’s ability to produce given the absolute crap that surrounded him. He racked up yards in spite of the Texans’ rigid, run-oriented schemes, and the parade of numbskulls who took snaps throughout the club's first decade: David Carr, Matt Schaub, T. J. Yates, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and more. (There’s a reason that owner Bob McNair shelled out so much cash for Brock Osweiler last spring.) “All he ever needed,” Cian Fahey once wrote, “was a more aggressive quarterback who would trust him in favorable match-ups.”
He never got one. During Johnson's tenure in Houston, the Texans averaged just seven wins. He only made the playoffs twice, and never suited up in a Super Bowl. Combined with his tendency toward introversion—“Johnson could be so quiet you could barely hear him speak”—he remained a man who could “dominate a game and still feel like a ghost.”
And so it was, two days ago, when Andre decided to hang up his cleats for good. He did not release a statement through his agent or the Titans, his last employer. The greatest Texan was nowhere to be found.