I used to want to be Jerry Rice when I was younger. I used to fly around my background pretending I was The G.O.A.T. in my cherry red and white 80 jersey. Despite not being the biggest, fastest, or strongest, Rice was the greatest due to his own hard work and determination, and that was the draw for a young Texas boy, who grew up a San Francisco fan, just starting to play in recreational leagues. Jerry was just great on a level no one else could even reach, and then August 31st, 1997 happened.
Slimy piece of crap Warren Sapp twisted Rice down by the facemask. On that play, Rice tore his ACL and MCL. He would rush back from injury later that very season and cracked the patella in his left kneecap. Rice would come back and have a few more decent years, but he was no longer the baddest receiver on the planet. Injury let age catch up with Rice and never let him get back to the uncoverable, hill-running machine he once was.
I remember that sad sort of feeling seeing Rice slow down and, at times, feel it creeping in watching this generation's dominating 80, Houston Texans All-Galaxy wide receiver Andre Johnson, as he bounces back from lower leg injuries. The eye test does not see him kicking it into extra gear with those deep routes or running with his trademark crispness. It is fair to question if that is in Johnson's skill set anymore, right?
We have all heard it. The talks of 'clearly now-in-decline' and 'aging and slowing' and 'doesn't scare you like he used to.' The statistics seem to dictate it. At 6'3'', 228-pounds running in the low 4.4s, Johnson was uncoverable by anyone not named Darrelle Revis, since he could match size and speed. The pre-injury Johnson (2007-09) would average 20 plays of 20-plus yards and 6 plays of 40-plus yards in a single season. In 2012, 'Dre is on pace for 11 plays of 20-plus yards and 2 plays longer than 40, a steep drop off.
Between what fans have seen and the lack of those gaudy receptions, Andre Johnson has to be in decline, right?
Overall, his numbers are still pretty good in comparison to his pre-2012 season averages. Johnson's on pace for 78 receptions (would match his pre-2012 average) for 1,014 yards (just under his pre-2012 average of 1,073 yards/season) and 57 first downs (above his pre-2012 average of 51/season). His 13.1 yards per catch is only half a yard below his career average. In other words, Andre Johnson, despite the lack of big plays, is meeting his career averages for a season. Can anyone really call that a decline - especially when he is still incredibly effective?
Over the past two weeks, we have likely begun to see the next phase in Andre 10000's career as he becomes a true possession receiver. Against Green Bay and Baltimore, Houston's 80 was targeted 22 times for 17 receptions, 161 yards, and 11 first downs. Gone are the explosive plays in favor of the dependable West Coast chain-mover. The routes being run are quick slants, outs, and ins with little need to expose that troublesome hamstring to long strides or the Reliant grass. If Johnson could not run and separate, he would not get all of these targets and receptions. Yet, I have my doubts on this being new 'Dre, too.
When asked, the former third overall pick has shown big play ability with a 60-yard touchdown reception in Denver, as well as having three multi-reception games with 14.5-plus yards per catch. With some gaudy plays as evidence, it is harder to definitively say if Johnson is truly declining and/or suffering from a mix of being protected and playing for a dominant team. Keeping 'Dre on the field and healthy has been a priority of head coach Gary Kubiak. Maybe the ol' ball coach is just being extremely overprotective, as seen by the reduced snap counts. The Texans have also changed significantly since 80's glory days.
Between a running hydra of Arian Foster, Ben Tate, and Justin Forsett and the fact that the Texans are blowing teams out, there is less of a slice of offensive pie for Andre. Quarterback Matt Schaub has not had to rally the Texans or compensate for a bad defense, so there has not been a need, per se, to throw the ball 40-plus times a game. Furthermore, the struggles in the running game have led to some hiccups, per Kubiak, in the play action pass, which is the facilitator in Houston's deep passing game. If we go off of Sage Rosenfels' intel, perhaps the new right side of the line and rotating pieces have made it harder to disguise run versus pass. That extra hesitation that it can build could be the difference in open Andre Johnson or covered Andre Johnson, especially since safeties key in on him over Kevin Walter. Circumstances have changed significantly for Houston's offense.
Until Big Play 'Dre is needed and Kubiak settles this rotation business, it really is hard to definitively answer the question of decline - especially since he still has shown flashes of the Andre Johnson we used to know. As the stages get bigger, I think Kubiak will loosen the restraints around Andre and let him ball out. It will be in those January moments that we will learn if Johnson will be the Andre of old or just an old Andre, but it would be a mistake to easily dismiss 'Dre - not until he has been tested.