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In late March, Schaub moved to Houston (his fiancée, Laurie Flynn, would follow; they live 10 minutes from the stadium and plan to be married next February) and began soaking up Kubiak's West Coast--style offense, blessedly similar to what Schaub ran at Virginia. "Some days I got to the office at five in the morning and Matt was already here," says offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, formerly the Green Bay Packers' coach. "He was on a different clock from all the other players. He was working coaches' hours."
DURING THROWING sessions that began in early April, Schaub forged a bond with his new teammates, most notably the sublimely talented Johnson, who brings a rare and lethal combination of size (6'3", 222 pounds) and speed. (He was a Big East 60- and 100-meter champion at Miami.) Johnson had caught 103 passes in 2006 and ascended to the highest level of NFL receivers. What he needed next was to use his stats as currency to buy wins.
Johnson's path to the league was markedly different from Schaub's. He was raised by a single mom, Karen Johnson, in tough Carol City, Fla. When Andre finished eighth grade, Karen yanked him out of school in Carol City and drove him 30 minutes each way to Miami Senior High, en route to her post-office job. "My mother didn't like my friends and some of the things I was doing, and my grades were down," says Johnson. "I didn't want to leave, but she gave me no choice." Long after the Carolina game was finished, Karen greeted the older of her two sons outside the stadium and embraced him. She wore a white Texans' number 80 game jersey with johnson stamped above the number.
A star at Miami Senior, Johnson was recruited by Butch Davis to stay home and play for the Hurricanes. "He was not only big [6'2", 195 in high school] but electrifyingly fast," says Davis. "We had talented players ahead of him, but we tried to get him on the field as quickly as possible." Johnson played as a third-year sophomore on Miami's 2001 national-title team and caught 20 touchdown passes in just three seasons.
More important, he learned passion from older wideouts such as Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, who embraced the team tradition of mentoring one's positional heirs. "In high school I was just the best athlete," says Johnson. "I never worked. Then I get to Miami, and the older guys are working harder than the young guys. It rubbed off on me. I started going to the weight room. I started working on my routes."
In Sunday's win over Carolina, a team considered a potential NFC representative in the Super Bowl, Schaub and Johnson helped turn the game around during a 12-minute stretch bridging the first and second quarters.
First it was Schaub who steadied the Texans' sideline after Carolina took a 14--0 lead less than 10 minutes in. Houston had gifted Carolina the second of the scores, when tight end Owen Daniels fumbled after catching a pass deep in Texans territory. "Any time in the last five years that this team got down 14--0 on the road, everybody would have been pretty shook up," said McKinney. "But Matt was just telling everybody, 'Don't get down; we'll chip away at it.' There are quarterbacks in this league who when they walk into the huddle, you can sense they're going to do the job. I was with Indianapolis [from 1998 to 2001], and I got that sense with Peyton Manning. I get it with Matt, too."
The Texans needed just three plays to score on the ensuing possession, and it was their QB-wideout combo that did the damage. Schaub hit Johnson on a 33-yard sideline bomb, then two plays later found Johnson on a quick slant that became a 31-yard touchdown. Midway through the second quarter, Houston tied the game when Johnson got a free release from the Carolina nine-yard line and ran past Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan for an easy catch at the back of the end zone. Both scores came on the flawless execution of well-designed plays. Texans brass expect that to become a Schaub trademark.
"Here's the thing about Matt," says Sherman. "As a quarterback he never guesses that something will be open. He always has a reason for what he does. He sees the field, anticipates movement and shows an awful lot of maturity for somebody so young."
LATE SUNDAY afternoon Johnson moved slowly out of the dressing room, the pain from a sprained left knee soothed by the balm of victory. "I sure hope it's O.K. next week," he said. "The defending champions are coming in."