One day, Andre Johnson is going to retire.
I know, I've already lost some of you. It will happen. It may not be as far off as you'd think, should injuries keep piling up. Either way, it will happen.
The Texans enter the 2011 season with more uncertainty about their passing game then they've seen in some time. Let's go with the premise that Matt Schaub does not wear the mythical "injury-prone" tag. Even putting that aside, this is a quarterback who does not handle pressure up the gut well and will be 31 when the season starts. Johnson's injury problems have limited him to 20 of 32 possible games over the past two years, and he will also be 31 when the season starts. Owen Daniels, though he stayed healthy last season, has essentially lost parts of the the two seasons prior to that to injuries. He'll turn 30 during the season. Kevin Walter had problems getting open last season, had to take a paycut to stay on the roster, and will be 31 this season. With Jacoby Jones and Joel Dreessen off to greener pastures as well, that means that of the 217 receptions that non-running back Texans reeled in last season, all but 19 of them (those by James Casey -- I guess I'll count him since he's not strictly a fullback -- and Garrett Graham) were by players that either won't be on the roster next year or will be 30 by the time 2012 is over.
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about Reuben Randle lately. Not creepy things about him -- I save those for Samkon Gado -- but about what passing on the chance to draft him in the second round meant to the Texans. One thing that I think is very telling about the Kubiak Era is the sheer amount of draft value that the Texans have spent on defense since he's been head coach. Houston passed on the chance to draft noted future superstars Vince Young and Reggie Bush, instead opting for North Carolina State sack master Mario Williams, during the first draft that Kubiak was involved in. Things haven't changed much since then.
Of the 21 picks the Texans have had in the top three rounds of the draft since 2006, a grand total of four of them have been spent on skill position players: Steve Slaton, Ben Tate, Jones, and Posey. Granted, they did essentially spend two second-round picks on Schaub -- that's still a huge slant of draft value towards the defense. In the meantime, the offense had continually been the best unit on the team. Up until last season's climax, anyway. It climbed from 26th in DVOA in 2006 to a high of second in the league in 2010, and that improvement was all made up on Schaub, low-round picks, and shrewd bargain basement signings like Walter and Dreessen.
Here's my point: without Andre Johnson, none of this is possible. Every offense needs a receiver to dictate coverages and earn deserved double teams to keep defenses honest. I point you to the first Ravens game last season, when without Johnson, the Texans passed for just 200 yards and had trouble on the ground. Is this an extreme example? To a point, yes, as the Ravens are perennially one of the best defenses in the NFL. However, my point is that if the Texans have honest-to-goodness championship aspirations, rather than just make-the-playoffs-and-hope-Arizona-magic-happens aspirations, they need a player of Andre Johnson's caliber to make their offense function against tough defenses.
I hate to cross sports, but I'm going to do it anyway. There's another team in Houston that I think is a good comparison for what happens to this passing offense going forward if they don't start spending on it soon: the Rockets. Daryl Morey is a master of finding undervalued talent. He created a team that can win 40 games consistently despite spending almost zero value to accumulate the pieces of it: Kyle Lowry for Rafer Alston, Luis Scola for almost nothing, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick for Aaron Brooks. However, the Rockets aren't going anywhere, because they no longer have the star to build it all around. This is almost exactly how the Kubiak Era has gone on offense: the team has found stars, capable pieces, and semi-stars with low draft picks and in undrafted free agency, as well as with small forays into regular free agency. Only, unlike the Rockets, they had a superstar: Andre Johnson. Thus, their offense was (and is?) a championship-caliber offense for a short window.
I'm using Randle as an example here because I think he's got a good chance to become a star receiver in this league -- maybe not an Andre Johnson, but a Dwayne Bowe- or Brandon Marshall-type player. The Texans are continuing to operate as if they do not need to replace Johnson. Maybe Randle wasn't high on their board (okay, he was, I happen to know). Maybe (probably) they know better than we do about how Johnson is looking in drills and all that. But what if we're faced with the prospect of more games without Andre Johnson?
Look, the NFL is a passing league now. The last team that made the Super Bowl without a good passing game was the 2006 Chicago Bears, who mostly did that through one of the best defenses of their era and the uncontrollable and special talent that is Devin Hester. The Giants and Patriots made it to the Super Bowl by having threats in the middle of the field that had to be accounted for: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Victor Cruz. Maybe the player that does that for the Texans was drafted this year (or, if you're really in on the Kool-Aid, maybe it's Lestar Jean), but I'd have a lot more confidence in that if they'd been able to select a Kendall Wright or Randle-type player.
And that's really the reason I was so adamantly pro-wide receiver in the first round this year. I'm certainly not unhappy with Whitney Mercilus, who seems a good bet to stick as an endbacker and will likely be an apprentice for the year before Connor Barwin finds someone to show him oodles of money. I believe in the systems on this team. I believe that, even without Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, the Texans have a chance to have the best running game in the NFL. As long as Johnathan Joseph holds up, I believe the Texans will have one of the better defenses in the league. But due to the aging parts involved in their passing offense, I fear that the Texans will be mired in a stretch where the running game and defense is too good for them to lose enough games to draft a new, wonderful, quarterback. I fear that they will assume the Kubiak model will continue to work without a real replacement for Johnson and become a yearly fringe-contender that is incapable of really knocking the door down. Mostly, I fear watching the Colts and Titans, with their shiny new offensive pieces, becoming threats to the Texans down the line solely because they can deliver more in the most important area of the NFL.
This, I feel, is the most pressing issue about the team at this point. That's a compliment to the work that Rick Smith, Kubiak, and Phillips have done. That instead of moaning a woeful defense, the debate is over whether the Texans can be good enough to win a Super Bowl. Let's not take that for granted.
But let's also not forget that windows can close as suddenly as they open.