Andre Johnson is the best player in Houston Texans history, and it’s not really even close. He was the first player picked in the team’s second draft. He’s seen the David Carr era come and go; he watched the rise of Mario Williams with the team, and the brief era during which Matt Schaub filled Houston fans with hope; he’s been there as defensive star J.J. Watt began to overtake him as the face of the franchise; and now—with head coach Gary Kubiak and longtime quarterback Schaub gone—Johnson has apparently come to the conclusion that the next era in Texans history is “rebuilding,” and he’d rather not be there for that.
It’s not an unreasonable conclusion. A 33-year-old wide receiver can still have a couple of years of playing at the level Johnson has maintained throughout his career, but in his eleven seasons with the team, he’s only been to the playoffs twice—and it’s not easy to see the Texans’ path back there with bearded journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick taking snaps, an Arian Foster who might be nearing the end of his career lining up in the backfield, and a defensive that’s without coordinator Wade Phillips, who transformed the unit into one of the league’s best.
The result of all of this is that Johnson has requested a trade. When an expensive superstar asks for a trade to a contender, that request is frequently granted—the Minnesota Vikings, for example, sent receiver Percy Harvin to the eventual-champion Seattle Seahawks, while Kansas City Chiefs icon Tony Gonzalez finished his career playing tight end for the Atlanta Falcons—but there’s reason to doubt that this will happen in Johnson’s case.
Johnson had danced around the trade talk roughly since the day Kubiak was fired, head coach Bill O’Brien was hired, and “rebuilding” became the word most commonly associated with the franchise. He skipped the team’s offseason workouts—at a cost of $1 million in forfeited wages—and the relationship became strained in recent days, after Johnson agreed to return to the team if he was given the chance to earn back the money, and the team declined.
Johnson’s olive branch came after he took some time to get to know the knew coaching staff, and after he concluded that the franchise hasn’t plunged into a full-blown rebuilding process. Johnson was ready to show up and get to work, with his only request being that the organization give him a way to earn the money that hinged on his full participation in the offseason program.
That was it. That’s all he wanted. And the Texans said no.
For now, the fracture has become a full-blown schism. After the team refused to give him a way to earn back the money, Johnson became committed to the idea of playing elsewhere.
There are reportedly four teams interested in Johnson’s services, and it’s not particularly challenging to identify receiver-needy contenders who would love to pair one of the better receivers in the game up with, say, Tom Brady or Cam Newton. But as of this morning, Johnson seems unlikely to receive either of his requests: to have the opportunity to recoup the money, or to play for another team. As Houston Chronicle Texans writer John McClain explains, Houston’s got a lot of reasons to want to keep Johnson, and few reasons to want to let him go:
The Andre Johnson controversy will be resolved one of two ways: He will report to the Texans under the terms of his contract, or he will sit out.
Johnson, one of the best receivers in NFL history, will not be traded for several reasons. The Texans want him to finish his career in Houston. They know they are a better team with him. And they don’t want to set a precedent for similar situations that might develop in the future.
All of that makes a lot of sense, but it also doesn’t explain why the team refused to allow him the chance to earn back the bonus that he forfeited. A million dollars to keep the best player in team history happy isn’t an outrageous expenditure, especially if earning that money back included taking on extra work in training camp. Johnson’s spent his entire career as one of the league’s classiest and most well-respected players, so it’s not like he’s prone to causing headaches or making threats that would create a dangerous precedent if the million bucks went back on the table.
Which leads Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com to believe that this might be more of a smokescreen than a principled stand.
Or maybe the Texans have decided that they don’t want Johnson — and they’ve opted to take a hard line on the $1 million so that they’ll be able to unload via trade his $10 million salary.
Keep this in mind: Whoever leaked news of the $1 million bonus also leaked that four teams are interested in trading for Johnson. Which means that the leak probably came from someone who wants to see Johnson traded.
Usually, that points to the player and/or his agent. In this case, there’s a chance that the Texans have decided that they don’t want to pay $10 million to a 33-year-old receiver, and that now is the best time to turn the asset into something of value.
There’s a certain level of intrigue that goes into negotiations of this sort, and Johnson’s case has more wrinkles than most. And perhaps the biggest question is what Johnson’s trade value would be: while he’s certainly one of the best receivers in the NFL, he’s also a player who’s closer to the end of the career than the beginning. Johnson at 27 would be worth a first-round pick and more; Johnson at 33 probably maxes out at a 3rd-rounder, and even that might be a stretch.
Ultimately, the question of where Andre Johnson plays next season might well be determined by how aware the Texans are that they’re rebuilding. The team lacks a quarterback, and while the core of the defense is strong, the questions on offense aren’t going to be answered in 2014. With that in mind, the desire to keep him a Texan for life is much more of an emotional decision than a football decision—something that wasn’t enough to bring, say, Johnny Manziel to Houston; and the fact that they’re better with him than without him in 2014 doesn’t mean as much as the fact that they’re better in 2015 or 2016, when they might be ready to compete, with an extra mid-round draft pick in 2015 than they are with a Johnson who’s lost a step or two; and the precedent they’d set by moving him to another team can be resolved simply by playing the same sort of hardball they’re playing now with the next player, assuming that trading that player doesn’t make as much sense as letting Johnson go does.
In other words, if the Texans think that they’re in the mix for a Super Bowl in 2014, then keeping Johnson is the right move. But for a team coming off of a 2-14 season, with a 31-year-old quarterback who’s on his fifth team as the starter, and new coaching schemes on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to imagine that the team can realistically think that they’re a championship contender this season. If the Texans acknowledge that they need a year to develop, meanwhile, dropping Johnson, his $10 million salary, and acquiring talent for the future makes a lot more sense than trying to win a battle of wills.
(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)