For weeks now, Texans receiver Andre Johnson has been anticipating moment and visualizing what it will be like to take the field with his teammates Sunday afternoon.
The time has finally arrived.
Seven weeks and six games since injuring his hamstring and having it surgically repaired, No.80 will take the field with the Texans when they take on AFC South rival Jacksonville on the road at EverBank Field. It’s been a difficult and sometimes excruciating road back but now that it’s here the Texans primary playmaker can hardly contain himself.
“It’s going to feel good,” Johnson said this week as he contemplated taking the field with his teammates after an extended absence. “I’ve been sitting down for six (games), not playing and sitting on the sidelines. A lot of frustrating times, but now I’m back on the field and feeling good. I’ve been out there running around and having fun. I’m excited.”
Johnson, of course isn’t alone in his joy. His teammates and coaches have for weeks watched him slowly return to the form with a few bumps in the road along the way. And finally this week he was completely turned loose in practice and began to resemble the All-Pro receiver who is one of the tops in the NFL.
“It’s great. It’s huge,” said fellow receiver Kevin Walter, who has had to pick up some of the slack in Johnson’s absence. “I told him, ‘Hey, it’s great seeing you in the huddle.’ It’s been a long time waiting. He’s our man of this franchise and we need him back, and he’s back this week and he’s looking great, feeling great. It’s going to be exciting to watch him play this weekend.”
Texans coach Gary Kubiak has seen noticed this week not just how much Johnson’s return has affected him but how it’s impacted the Texans as a whole. Everyone inside of the Reliant Stadium held their collective breath when Johnson fell down to the turf untouched and grabbing his knee in obvious pain against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 of the season on Oct. 4.
It seemed almost certain that the franchise’s hopes for its first playoff berth were gone. But seven weeks later the Texans are the No.2 seed in the AFC and seem to have the playoffs in point-blank range.
Having Johnson back should only solidify the Texans playoff positioning.
“It’s been good for the team just to have him back out here,” Kubiak said Friday. “I can see how hungry he is to get back to be a part of what’s going on. He’s practiced good this week.
“Ya’ll know what Andre means to this team and for him to be putting the uniform on again on Sunday, he hasn’t done it in a while, so it will mean a lot to the team.”
It will also be huge for a 7-3 Texans team that is fighting to remain in first place in the division while dealing with the loss of quarterback Matt Schaub for the season. Schaub suffered a Lisfranc fracture to his foot two weeks in the 37-9 win over Tampa Bay.
The reigns are being handed over former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart for the first time since he arrived at the beginning of last season.
Johnson, whose connection and chemistry with Schaub has been critical to the team’s growth the past few years, admitted it hit him hard when the news broke this week that Schaub for certain was headed to the injured reserve list. Johnson has always been Schaub’s sure-fire outlet when the Texans needed a big play. And Johnson has almost never let Schaub down.
“It’s different when you’re dealing with a guy for that long. You kind of know each other,” said Johnson, who had 25 catches for 352 yards and two touchdowns in their four games together prior to his hamstring injury. “You could be out for a few games and when you come back, it’s just like riding a bike because you know what each other are thinking.”
Now, he will need to develop that connection with the left-handed Leinart, who hasn’t started a game since 2009. Having a receiver the caliber of Johnson should be huge for Leinart as he makes his Texans debut against the Jaguars.
If he can just get the ball in Johnson’s general vicinity good things are bound to happen.
“Now that we get him back it’s going to make us that much tougher to stop, and that’s exciting,” said Leinart, who began developing a throwing connection with Johnson last week during the bye. “We’re trying to get our timing down, and he’s probably a little rusty coming off of a bunch of weeks, but I know that he’s been anxious to get back and help this team, and I expect him to be the same old Andre he’s been for a long time.”
The week leading up to Sunday has been one of varied challenges for Johnson. There has been some hesitation with the hamstring and some feelings of rust, but he admits both got better as the week progressed.
“On Monday, we came in and I felt like I hadn’t played for years,” Johnson admitted. “I just felt like I was running around out there like a chicken with my head cut off, just running around. I felt like I had a lost a lot. When I went out to practice (Wednesday), it was kind of night and day between Monday and (Wednesday). I felt a lot more comfortable just being out there and going through plays and stuff like that.”
Kubiak, who is also celebrating the quick return of safety Danieal Manning from a broken leg, said the key with Johnson is being smart with how he works the star receiver back into the mix. The Texans are riding a four-game winning streak and have gone 4-2 in Johnson’s absence, have relied more heavily on the run in recent weeks with Arian Foster and Ben Tate establishing themselves as the top running back tandem in the league.
While Johnson may not be quite back to form Sunday, his presence should only open up things for the offense.
“We got to bring him along the right way,” Kubiak said. “You don’t just, a guy who’s missed that much time, just throw him out there for the whole load. But he’s chomping at the bit, I can tell you that. He’s missed some time and he’s ready to go.”