Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson has been one of the classiest players in the game over the past decade. That's why his controversial comments last week, when he openly wondered if Houston was still the right franchise for him, felt so out of character. They were words that displayed overflowing frustration and incredibly lousy timing. They also spoke to the biggest problem the Texans have faced over the past year: a serious lack of leadership.
As soon as Johnson uttered those statements earlier this week, he should've been thinking long and hard about the wisdom in that move. This is a guy who's been the best player in that franchise's history, and he sounded like a veteran who didn't want to embrace his responsibility as the Texans try to rebound from an abysmal 2-14 season.
Houston doesn't need Johnson whining about how bummed he's been over most of his 11 years with that organization. It needs him to rally his fellow teammates around the new foundation that first-year head coach Bill O'Brien is trying to establish.
Johnson can't do that if he follows through on plans to miss Houston's organized team activities, along with an upcoming mandatory minicamp. It's unlikely this has anything to do with money, since Johnson is under contract for three more years with base salaries of $10 million, $10.5 million and $11 million, respectively. The Texans have done their part by making the 32-year-old wide receiver understand they want him to spend his entire career with that franchise. Johnson now has to realize such an investment means an unquestioned level of faith on his part, a belief that Houston isn't just embarking on another long rebuilding project.
That isn't to say it's not easy to see why Johnson is so flustered. He holds franchise records for receptions (927), yards (12,261) and receiving touchdowns (61), but those numbers also haven't led to the type of team success Johnson has coveted. The Texans have made only two trips to the playoffs since the seven-time Pro Bowler's arrival in the 2003 draft. Last season's team lost 14 consecutive games, ruining all the good vibes that emanated from winning the two previous AFC South titles.
"I just look at my career ... I've only been to the playoffs twice," Johnson told reporters in Houston. "I think we've only had three winning seasons. I don't think any player wants to experience that. I think over time it can become very frustrating. And this offseason has been very frustrating for me. Beginning of the offseason, I should say. That's just kind of where I'm at right now."
The reason it's difficult to sympathize with Johnson too much is that many star players, especially wide receivers, have to endure this same problem. The Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald has also been to the playoffs only twice in his 10-year career -- including a Super Bowl appearance to cap the 2008 season -- but he's not complaining about a plight that has included a revolving door at quarterback. The Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson has one playoff appearance in seven seasons -- and played on the only 0-16 team in NFL history -- and he's remained fairly quiet as well. You can argue that Andre Johnson has more festering bitterness because he's been in the NFL a little longer, but that only carries so much weight. If he wants better results, he needs to be more of a leader.
The Texans have spent too many years facing the same question about their biggest flaw: an apparent lack of toughness. They have plenty of high-character players and a handful of ultra-talented stars (including Johnson, running back Arian Foster and defensive end J.J. Watt). What they've lacked in recent years is a dominant presence in the locker room, the type of player who inspires everybody else through sheer force of personality. Johnson, like the other Pro Bowl-caliber players on the roster, has always been more comfortable leading by example.
That's not going to be good enough if the Texans want to change their fortunes quickly. Johnson doesn't have to become as bombastic as Ray Lewis was during his Hall of Fame career in Baltimore, but he also won't help matters by sulking in the shadows as his teammates prepare for the upcoming season. The Texans have enough talent to create the same kind of impressive rebound that occurred in Kansas City last season. After suffering through their own 2-14 season in 2012, the Chiefs finished last season with an 11-5 record and a wild-card spot in the AFC playoffs.
That turnaround occurred largely because the Chiefs' star players weren't griping about all the frustrating moments they endured in recent seasons. It happened because they bought into what new head coach Andy Reid was selling. O'Brien doesn't have Reid's résumé, but he did stabilize a chaotic situation at Penn State after working under Bill Belichick in New England. He's also got a defense that just added defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick in this year's draft, to a pass rush that could be as devastating as any in the NFL.
The one real gripe that Johnson could have -- even if it's one he didn't say publicly -- is the Texans' quarterback situation. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the likely starter, because he's the most experienced signal-caller in the building. Fourth-round pick Tom Savage might be the quarterback of the future, a player who created buzz before the draft. So after watching Matt Schaub self-destruct and Case Keenum fail to impress, Johnson will probably spend another season doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in Houston's passing game.
This, by the way, is what superstar players must do sometimes. When the Cardinals went on their run to Super Bowl XLIII, it was largely because Fitzgerald took his game to another level with a rejuvenated Kurt Warner at quarterback. It's fair to say no receiver in NFL history has ever produced a postseason like Fitzgerald did that year. It's also accurate to state that Johnson, despite all his accomplishments, has never had that kind of impact on his own team.
The good news for Houston is that there is still plenty of time to get this issue resolved. The regular season is still four months away, and it's doubtful that Johnson will allow his frustration to linger that long. His focus by that point should be on what the Texans can do to move forward in a positive manner. That's where it should've been a few days ago, when he started answering questions about his current feelings about the organization.