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Is Andre Johnson The New Barry Sanders?

After 11 seasons in the NFL, all of them with the Houston Texans, the greatest player in the brief history of the franchise is going through a soul searching experience not unlike another former great player who retired after too many years of team rebuilds amid a culture of losing. Sound familiar? Take a deep breath and read on.

Did Barry Sanders look like this?
Did Barry Sanders look like this?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Texans fans everywhere are hanging on every word with respect to the recent news that Andre Johnson is frustrated and perhaps considering retirement.  There are strong similarities to another former NFL great:  Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions, the lone bright spot on his team for most of his career.

Sanders abruptly retired in July of 1999 when it became clear that the team was facing yet another offensive system rebuild.  Let's consider some key points of how the great Barry Sanders chose to leave the Lions/the NFL, and why he made that choice.

From Barry Sanders' Wikipedia page:

Despite his individual success, the Lions never reached the Super Bowl while Sanders was with the team. The closest they came was in the 1991 season. Aided by Sanders’ 1,855 combined rushing/receiving yards and 17 touchdowns during the season, they recorded a 12–4 record and went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys 38–6 in the divisional playoffs, which still stands as Detroit’s only playoff victory since defeating the Cleveland Browns to win the 1957 NFL Championship.

The Texans at least enjoyed two back-to-back seasons with a playoff win.  Can you imagine 34 years between playoff wins?  Oh, and it has now been another 22 years since that last playoff win.  Lions fans have my sympathy and respect.

What Barry was so close to accomplishing:

He retired within striking distance of Walter Payton’s career rushing mark of 16,726 yards. Only Payton and Emmitt Smith have rushed for more yards than Sanders.

Sanders finally talked about his decision:

Several years after retirement, with repeated refusals to discuss the abruptness of it, Sanders finally admitted that the culture of losing in the Lions’ organization was too much to deal with, even though he said that he could still play and that Detroit had made the playoffs in five of his ten seasons.

Wow! They made the playoffs 5 out of Sanders' 10 seasons? To think ‘Dre has only had 3 winning seasons and a mere 2 seasons with playoffs in 11 years. Who suffered more?

He explained that it robbed him of his competitive spirit, and he saw no reason to believe things were going to improve. When Detroit drafted quarterback Charlie Batch in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft and it became apparent that Batch would become Detroit’s full-time starter the next season, Sanders seemed unwilling to embrace yet another change in the Lions’ seemingly endless carousel of quarterbacks and offensive philosophies.

This sounds eerily similar to what ’Dre is contemplating--another change in offensive philosophies.  Only 'Dre is also facing a third coaching regime in eleven years, while Barry had two coaches in ten years.  At the time he retired from the Lions, Barry was heading into a third season with then head coach Bobby Ross.


1988 - 1996:  Wayne Fontes (Barry drafted in 1989)

1997 - 2000:  Bobby Ross (Barry retired in 1999)


2002 - 2005:  Dom Capers ('Dre drafted in 2003)

2006 - 2013:  Gary Kubiak

2014 - (Present):  Bill O'Brien


1989 - 1993:  Rodney Peete

1994 - 1997:  Scott Mitchell

1998 - 2001:  Charlie Batch


2002 - 2006:  David Carr

2007 - 2013:  Matt Schaub

2014 - (Present):  Unknown

He stated there were tears in his eyes as the Lions lost in the playoffs to Tampa Bay in 1998, because he knew in his heart he was never going to play another playoff game for Detroit. "I sobbed for 3 months," Sanders said.

I can only imagine the horror for ‘Dre of losing the last 14 consecutive games and seeing the QBs struggle so much last season.  Head coach Gary Kubiak didn't even survive to the end of the season, as he was fired after the eleventh consecutive loss during Week 14 of the 2013 season.  Then, all but two of the rest of the coaching staff were dismissed as the new regime took over.

Perhaps the hardest part of all was witnessing the departure of fellow players like quarterback Matt Schaub, tight end Owen Daniels, running back Ben Tate, defensive end Antonio Smith, safety Danieal Manning, and several other players.  For a wide receiver, the head coach and quarterback changes definitely hit the hardest.  Notwithstanding the comments being made by the owner and general manager about this being a "quick turnaround," a seasoned veteran like Andre Johnson knew exactly what he was witnessing--a tear-down and rebuild of this organization.

O'Brien and crew swept through the team spaces, removing objects of individual recognition and completely transforming the weight room facility.

As NFL Network's Albert Breer was first to note O'Brien has removed references to individual accomplishments from the building.

The Texans used to have posters of players who had won individual weekly awards throughout their team meeting room. Gone.

They had posters of a few players with their individual accomplishments in the locker room. Gone.

The message: Football is a team game, and team accomplishments are what will be celebrated.

The "there is no I in team" message isn't a unique one - the Texans have heard that before - but O'Brien wants to ensure there is no mistaking that individual accomplishments will never supersede team goals.

The concept of "TEAM FIRST" is a positive one, and it is one that I agree with.  At the same time, you have players like Andre Johnson who may see it as large chunks of Texans' history, a history he helped to create in large part, being swept casually to the side to make way for the next era.

I can only surmise that the emotional aspect of all these changes, losing coaches, players and visual reminders of the history of the team is not too unlike the gut wrenching experience felt by the characters Arya Stark, Sansa Stark and Jon Snow in the critically acclaimed HBO series "Game of Thrones."  Their family was systematically slaughtered and their home pillaged while they fled into exile.  Like 'Dre, they were powerless to do anything about it and were forced to endure watching it all take place around them.  The difference is that Andre has already endured this TWICE now during his time in Houston.  I would argue he has suffered more than Barry Sanders did when comparing the two side by side.

Andre has very good reason to take pause amidst all of this change and to contemplate if he still has the desire to go through another rebuilding of this team.  After eleven seasons of giving everything he had, and to great effect, Andre Johnson has earned the right to choose to strap it on for another few seasons or to retire gracefully with honor.  He may prefer to be traded to a team with a better chance at a championship to finish out his career, rather than rebuild the Texans a third time.

CLICK2HOUSTON posted the full video interview, which includes A LOT more detail than was previously published in audio tracks or text quotes.