Atlanta veterans noticed. "He was savvy beyond his years," says wideout Peerless Price, who played with the Falcons in 2004. "[Fellow receivers] Brian Finneran, 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."
In late March 2007 Schaub moved to Houston (his fianc�e, Laurie Flynn, would follow; they live 10 minutes from the stadium) 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 2007, 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 '06 and ascended to the highest level of NFL receivers. What he needed next was to use the talent that led to those stats to produce game-breaking plays and wins.
Johnson's path to the league was markedly different from Schaub's. He was raised by a single mother, 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 pounds 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 the Miami team that won the 2001 national championship and caught 20 touchdown passes in three seasons.
More important, he learned passion from older wideouts such as Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, who embraced the program's 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 the 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 jumped out to a 14-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the first quarter. Houston had essentially given Carolina the second of the scores when tight end Owen Daniels fumbled after catching a pass deep in Texans territory. "Anytime 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 through 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 quarterback-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 reception at the back of the Panthers' end zone. Both scores resulted from the flawless execution of well-designed plays. Texans management expects such precision 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."