Johnson a man of big numbers, few words

HOUSTON – When you're climbing a mountain, there's no time for wasted breath. Expending even the smallest amount of precious air on idle talk is going to just slow down the process.

Perhaps that's why Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson(notes) parcels out words the way bankers loan money these days. For Johnson and the Texans, it's about making the climb – not telling people all about it along the way.

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Johnson has certainly lived up to his first-round status.

(Brett Davis/US Presswire)

In the look-at-me era of NFL receivers – where Terrell Owens(notes) has a reality show and Chad Ochocinco(notes) rambles endlessly on "Hard Knocks" – Johnson is unconcerned about his lack of notoriety. Though Johnson led the NFL in catches (115) and receiving yards (1,575) last season and is considered by many coaches and executives to be among the top handful of receivers in the game, getting him to talk about this is like trying to run through a cinder-block wall.

"All the stories I have about 'Dre aren't really about him," said David Anderson(notes), another Texans wideout and resident entertainer, given his impressions of boxer Ricky Hatton or quarterback-turned-analyst Ron Jaworski. "They're about the things we do to him to make him talk. You really have to grind on him to get something out of him. He's fun and he'll joke around, but it takes a lot to bring him out."

Or as Texans wide receiver Darnell Jenkins(notes) said: "If 'Dre don't know you, he's not going to say anything to you. He's not being mean about it; he just won't talk. That's just him."

Always has been. Back in Carol City, Fla., where Johnson grew up with his brother and mother, "there wasn't much talking going on," said Johnson, a first-team All-Pro last season. "If I don't know you, I'm not really going to talk to you. It has nothing to do with trust. I may say a few words to you, but not like I'm going to just start talking to people out of nowhere."

So it should be no surprise that Johnson agreed in his first contract not to do any national endorsements or ads for at least one year.

"I actually just did my first national commercial this offseason, and this is my seventh season," said Johnson, agreeing to the request without a second thought, assuring the organization that his focus was on football. "That stuff doesn't make me. What I need to do is whatever it takes to get this team to its first playoff appearance. That's all that matters."

Johnson isn't dismissive or rude, and it's not that he can't be bothered talking. Over the course of two days this week, he did eight interviews with various media outlets and he's extremely accessible to reporters who cover the team regularly – win or lose.

Ultimately, while he may not have much to say, Johnson wants to make people feel at ease. It's part of his approach to making Houston great. As the Texans embark on their eighth season since joining the NFL as an expansion team, Johnson understands his role as a foundational piece.

He was Houston's second first-round pick, coming in as the third overall selection of the 2003 NFL draft. Considering that 2002 No. 1 pick David Carr(notes) is already gone, Johnson is basically a founding father. Just as he helped the University of Miami return to greatness in the late 1990s after the school was on probation, he senses the same mission in Houston.

"I feel the same way, like I'm going through a process," said Johnson, who rarely looks anyone straight in the eye as he initially starts to speak, portraying an almost shy quality. "At Miami, my redshirt year there, I think we lost four games and went to the Gator Bowl. Then, my first year playing, we went 11-1 and it felt like you were part of something special, bringing the program back. The next year, we won a national championship and then we played for another one the next year.

"Here, it's kind of like the same thing. You come to a new organization, it's a process. It's not going to happen overnight. I definitely feel like we're climbing the mountain."

Johnson seems to plot a course with that in mind. While teammates and coaches unanimously call him that rare combination of best player and hardest worker on the team, Johnson doesn't preen in his workouts. At 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, he is built more like a linebacker, but he doesn't show it off.

"We were lifting one time and 'Dre has about 30 pounds of muscle on me," said Anderson, who is all of 5-10, 194 pounds and often goes unrecognized as a football player. "His body is ridiculous. But we're doing the incline press and we're both doing the same weight, like about 185 pounds. I'm kind of looking at him like I can't believe I'm lifting the same amount as him.

"He starts joking about how his muscles are just 'air' muscles, just pumped up with a lot of air … so I laugh and go on to the next thing. I turn around and he's thrown another 90 pounds on the press after I left. It was like he didn't want to embarrass me."

That's exactly the case.

"I'm never going to make my teammates feel bad," Johnson said. "I wouldn't do anything like that. Sometimes guys feel like you're on a different level than they're on, but I don't look at it like that. I make it so they feel comfortable working out with me. I want them to feel the same way I feel.

I'm never going to say, 'Oh, you're lifting that light weight?' or anything like that."

At the same time, there is no question that Johnson is the player the Texans have built their passing game around. Last year, as the team struggled to an 0-4 start after the devastation of Hurricane Ike, Johnson came up with a season-turning play.

Facing a fourth-and-10 late in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins, quarterback Matt Schaub(notes) rolled right and threw back to his left to Johnson, who had been running a crossing pattern from left to right before cutting back to the left sideline. The juggling catch allowed the Texans to keep the game-winning drive alive.

"That's the play of the year for us," said wide receiver Kevin Walter(notes). "We don't get that, who knows where our season goes."

Said head coach Gary Kubiak: "That play and that drive completely switched the gears for us. We're 0-4 at the time, pick up that game, go 8-4 the rest of the way and finish 8-8. As a coach, that's what you talk about with guys – that one play can make a difference in a whole season – and that proved it."

When asked about the play, Johnson almost shrugs it off.

"As I was running that play, I didn't feel no extra pressure, like I had to be the one to make the catch or anything like that," Johnson said. "I knew the situation, but it wasn't like it had to be me. … I've never been a person who felt like they needed a lot of attention. I've never been that way."

Given his lack of chatter relative to the other marquee performers at his position, it shows.

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