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Sports Illustrated SEPTEMBER 24, 2007
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 from each of his touchdown receptions in a 34-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 16, 2007. 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.) "Six years to get to this point," said center Steve McKinney, 31, a Houston native and a member of the original Texans team. "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The change begins at quarterback, where failed five-year project David Carr has been replaced by Matt Schaub, who was Michael Vick's understudy from 2004 through '06 on the Atlanta Falcons. 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 sixth-best quarterback rating (111.4) in the league. It is 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 in '06 (and a total of 249 times over five seasons). One reason is obvious: Schaub is quick and decisive in the pocket, and Carr was not.
" Schaub is 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 Charlotte, 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 made clear 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."
The relationship was sealed on a Southern California golf course in March 2007. 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 it saw.
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 there. 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 '08 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 would arrive at the stadium on Sunday convinced he was going to play.