CHAD JOHNSON, Bengals (above)
RANDY MOSS, Patriots
STEVE SMITH, Panthers
ANDRE JOHNSON, Texans
JERRICHO COTCHERY, Jets
JAVON WALKER, Broncos
JOEY GALLOWAY, Buccaneers
ANTWAAN RANDLE EL, Redskins
BRAYLON EDWARDS, Browns
FIRST HE tossed his
receiver's gloves into a blue equipment bag on the floor. Then he flipped his
cleats on top of those. Piece by piece the rest of his uniform followed, until
Houston Texans wideout Andre Johnson at last reached into a dressing cubicle in
the visitors' locker room at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and pulled
out two footballs—one for each of his touchdown receptions in a 34--21 victory
over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon. Those he placed carefully into
the top of the satchel before a Texans equipment manager zipped it shut.
The fifth-year wideout pulled on his dress pants and watched as the bag was
carried out of the room toward a waiting cargo truck. "You know, people
always were asking me if I saved any of the footballs from my touchdown
catches," said Johnson, who came into the season with 17 career scoring
receptions. "I never did. But I'm saving them now."
He's got reason to.
The Texans' victory gave the six-year-old franchise its first 2--0 start
(Houston has never even been 2--1 after three games), and the situation gets
headier fast: The Texans host the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (also
2--0) this Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Houston. "Six years to get to this
point," said center Steve McKinney, 31, a Houston native and an original
Texan. "Things feel so much different around here."
The change begins
at quarterback, where failed five-year project David Carr has been replaced by
Matt Schaub, Michael Vick's understudy for the last three seasons in Atlanta.
Schaub has infused the Texans with uncommon poise and teamed with the dangerous
Johnson to form one of the best new pass-and-catch combinations in the NFL.
They have already connected 14 times for 262 yards (Johnson ranks fourth in the
NFL in that category) and three touchdowns. Schaub has completed 36 of 50
passes, with just one interception, and has the league's sixth-best quarterback
rating (111.4). It's also instructive that Schaub has been sacked just twice in
two weeks playing behind an offensive line that was maligned for allowing Carr
to be sacked 41 times last year (and 249 times in five seasons). One reason is
obvious: Schaub is quick and decisive in the pocket, and Carr was not.
phenomenal, man," says guard Fred Weary, another original Texan. "He
makes plays, and he does not get rattled. And when the quarterback doesn't get
rattled, nobody gets rattled."
Three days before
the victory in Carolina, Houston owner Robert McNair stood next to a practice
field at the Texans' training complex, dressed in team workout gear (as is his
custom during practices), and established precisely where the bar is set for
Schaub. "We're hoping he can be a Tom Brady--type guy for this
franchise," McNair said. "That's what we think of Matt."
was sealed on a Southern California golf course last March. Texans management
had emerged from its fifth consecutive losing season in agreement on at least
one issue: "We had to get better play out of the quarterback position,"
says general manager Rick Smith. When it became apparent that the Falcons might
be willing to deal Schaub, the Houston brain trust studied him. And liked what
Coach Gary Kubiak
made one request before Smith and McNair pulled the trigger on a trade.
"I'd really like to spend a day with this kid, get to know what he
thinks," Kubiak told Smith. Kubiak and Schaub arranged to play golf
together at a course in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, one day after
Schaub had played in an event hosted there by his agent, Joby Branion. For nine
holes, Kubiak and Schaub talked business. The quarterback reminded the coach
that he'd been selected out of Virginia in the third round in 2004, in the same
draft as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, all of whom had
become starters. "I see myself as a starter in this league too," Schaub
told Kubiak. "I want my chance."
The coach was sold.
They played the final nine holes for fun, and a $20 stroke-play bet laid down
by Kubiak. Schaub won, and within 12 hours of Kubiak's triple bogey on the 18th
hole the Texans had dealt their second-round draft picks in 2007 and 2008 to
Atlanta for Schaub; the teams also agreed to swap first-round picks in the '07
draft. It was a move that would prove fateful for the Falcons when Vick's
suspension left them with the erratic Joey Harrington at quarterback.
Schaub attacked his
new job. He'd been a high school star in suburban Philadelphia and the most
productive quarterback in Virginia history. Yet with the Falcons he'd had to
glean experience from tiny nuggets of action: He started just two games in
three years, and Vick took nearly every snap in practice. "With the kind of
athlete Mike was, I knew that if he was healthy I was never going to play,"
says Schaub. "The challenge was for me to get those reps in my brain."
Schaub would stay after practice and stand on the field, game script in hand,
visualizing every play in the game plan. He would watch film as if he were the
starter and arrive at the stadium on Sunday convinced he'd play.
noticed. "He was savvy beyond his years," says Buffalo Bills wideout
Peerless Price, who played with the Falcons in 2003 and '04. "[Fellow
receivers] Brian Finneran and Dez White and I always used to say it was just a
matter of opportunity for this guy. Right from the start, we all thought he
wouldn't be there long. He was too good."