Yesterday afternoon, Andre Johnson walked away from the NFL. It’s the second such abrupt retirement by a one-time star of the Houston Texans who was living out the twilight of his career with a downtrodden franchise, and like Arian Foster, Johnson was, at best, a bit player on his new team in Tennessee. He hadn’t caught a pass in the last three games, and on the season had hauled in only nine passes, on 23 targets, for 85 yards and two touchdowns. It was as good a time as ever to go.
Johnson leaves the sport with a perplexing legacy. He is undoubtedly one of the most successful receivers of all-time, ranking in the top 10 in career receptions and receiving yards. But among that elite class of pass-catchers—which includes Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, etc.—Johnson has to be the least celebrated. Far from being a national superstar, Johnson may only be a “household name” in Houston, where he played for 12 seasons, and perhaps Miami, where he starred in college.
He had the specific misfortune of being selected third overall by Houston in the 2003 NFL Draft, just one season after the fledging franchise was birthed. He played his first four seasons catching passes from David Carr, then his next seven from Matt Schaub. It would be nine years until Johnson ever appeared in a playoff game with the team, and in the two seasons he did, the Texans never advanced past the second round. So Johnson was a superstar playing off-Broadway for a decade, but even that doesn’t quite explain his relative anonymity—Foster was an instant national presence for the Texans, to say nothing of J.J. Watt. How does a man dominate a game and still feel like a ghost?
One explanation might simply be a lack of touchdowns. Despite amassing the ninth-most receptions and 10th-most receiving yards of all-time, Johnson only tallied 70 touchdowns over his 14-year career, an average of just five per season. Scoring was the best way to get Chris Berman to shoot spittle in all directions on Sunday nights, and Johnson’s highlights stayed much drier than those of his contemporaries.
Perhaps it’s also that in an era of receivers with personalities fit for Hollywood—Moss, Owens, Steve Smith, Chad Ochocinco—Johnson appears to have just gone about his business as an excellent wide receiver. For better or worse, he did not draw attention to himself, and playing for an easily ignored franchise, there was no easy way to “brand” him. Harrison, for instance, was as workmanlike as a modern receiving legend could ever be, but even he had a lauded connection with his superstar-in-arms, Peyton Manning.
So, what was Andre Johnson good at? This highlight video of his best game—a 14-catch, 273-yard performance against the Jaguars in 2012, in which he scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime—shows that he could be both a possession receiver and game-breaker, using his size to move the chains over the middle and his speed to blow the roof off the defense.
At 6-foot-3 and north of 225 pounds, Johnson was exactly what you would want in a big receiver. When he did catch touchdowns, he used his body in the end zone like a basketball player. This well-circulated GIF of him bouncing off three Arizona Cardinals shows the sheer overwhelming power of his physicality. That it’s rendered as low-res as a third-division Greek basketball prospect’s highlight tape feels oddly appropriate:
Johnson is unique in that he played two archetypes at once. He simply got the job done, but you’d also be mistaken to assume he wasn’t a freak of nature. He starred at the University of Miami at a time when the program churned out future NFL legends as efficiently as a Ford plant, and no player from that era looked more like a man amongst boys than the towering receiver streaking down the sidelines. In the Canes’ 2001 destruction of Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, Johnson was simply uncoverable, throwing poor Cornhusker corners around like they were action figures.
His ability to be the physically freakish burner and the workmanlike chain-mover at the same time is exactly what made Johnson so great, but that’s probably why it’s so hard to remember him as a true superstar. If you think of Randy Moss, you picture him chasing down a 60-yard pass with three defenders trailing behind him. Think about Marvin Harrison and you see a technician executing a perfect curl route. What do you see when you think of Andre Johnson?
Well, you probably see him punching the shit out of Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The weirdest thing about Johnson is the incongruity of his personality with what is inarguably the most memorable moment of his NFL career, when, just three days after Thanksgiving in 2010, Johnson and Finnegan staged a boxing match just outside the left hash. If three men had been sitting at a table with scorecards, they would have awarded Johnson a TKO.
Playing receiver in the NFL is about catharsis. You run around forever, mostly for no reason. So when the ball gets thrown your way you better do something with it. This is why T.O. desecrated the Dallas star, Moss mooned Green Bay, and Smith acted out full movie scenes in the end zone. Andre Johnson’s moment of ultimate catharsis was beating the crap out of Cortland Finnegan. I can’t quite square that with the rest of his career, but I bet it felt pretty damn good.