HOUSTON — There were moments, especially during the lost season of 2005 when victories were as scarce hereabouts as snowmobiles, that Andre Johnson would wonder whether there wasn't an exit ramp for him somewhere in this freeway-happy town.
"I wouldn't say that there was a time when I said, 'Get me out of here,' " recalled the Texans' receiver laureate. "Had I thought about it? Yeah."
But that wasn't what the man had signed on for when he arrived from Miami in 2003 as the franchise's sticky-fingered future.
"I knew there would be tough times coming to a new franchise," he said, "but you had a chance to be part of something special."
The Texans haven't won a Super Bowl yet but have clinched a return trip to the NFL playoffs and already are assured of their best season (11-1 and counting) since they opened shop in 2002, the year that the Patriots won their first ring.
If Houston beats New England Monday night in Foxborough — which no visitor has managed in a decade of Decembers — it would be well on its way to clinching home advantage throughout the postseason, which would have seemed a long shot even two years ago.
"This is something we've been working for around here for a long time, to put ourselves in a situation like this," remarked Johnson, who has proclaimed the star-spangled showdown as the biggest game in franchise history. "I didn't think it would take 10 seasons for it to happen, but it did, and I'm just enjoying every moment of it."
Johnson is the only man on the roster who goes back that far, and he's savoring what is shaping up as a career campaign. He has surpassed the 10,000-yard milestone for receiving yards (10,770) and submitted his sixth 1,000-yard season (1,114).
Last month, when Houston survived overtime shootouts with Jacksonville and Detroit, Johnson set an NFL record for yardage in consecutive games with 461, piling up 273 on 14 catches against the Jaguars (including the winning 48-yard touchdown), and 188 on nine against the Lions.
"It's been six years now I've been watching it up close and personal, but every time I think I've seen it all, he goes and does something even to outdo himself before," testified quarterback Matt Schaub.
"He just continues to impress me and wow me as far as what he's able to do on the football field."
Significantly, Johnson is doing it at 31 after missing nine games last year with an uncooperative hamstring that kept him fidgeting in street clothes while his teammates were making their unprecedented run to the playoffs.
"Last year, I was excited, but at the same time, I was down because you're like, man, I know I could be out there helping the team," said Johnson, who returned for the playoffs.
"Those would be the times when I would get down on myself and try to hope that I could hurry up and come back.
"But at the same time, I was excited to see that it was all coming together, that we finally had a chance to make the playoffs. Now, it just makes you appreciate it even more."
The Texans without Johnson would be like the Colts without Reggie Wayne, and his body of work rivals that of any of his counterparts in the game for consistency at a lofty level.
Johnson is the only receiver ever to have at least 60 catches in each of his first eight seasons. His 80.4-yards-a-game average is the highest in history among receivers who've played at least 100 games, and his receptions per game (5.82) are the most for anyone with at least 500.
"Coming into this league, I always said that I wanted to be the best that ever played, but to accomplish that, you have to try to be consistent," said Johnson. "That's my biggest thing, trying to be consistent year in and year out.
"I've battled through a lot of injuries in my career but I always thought that if I could be healthy, that I could go out and put up the big numbers."
Most impressively, Johnson put them up for a team that didn't have a winning season until three years ago and where his Sunday stats were the sidelight to a defeat. But the 2005 season, when the Texans went 2-14 and Johnson was limited to 63 catches and 688 yards, tested his resolve.
"There were times when I didn't want to get up and come to work," he acknowledged. "It's hard because you're working your butt off and you just can't get the job done. That's the biggest thing I tell the guys. You don't ever want to experience that because it's not a good feeling."
There were better teams that could have promised Johnson more productive outings, but he was determined to stay the course while a toddling franchise became competitive.
"There's always frustration, but that's the thing that makes you grow as a player, as a person," he said. "You've got to find out a lot about yourself — if you're going to be loyal, if you're going to run away from it.
"My thing was, I wanted to stay. I wanted to be a part of something special. I wanted to help this organization get to where it is right now and help it achieve more."
Progress came excruciatingly slowly. Houston went 6-10 in 2006, then 8-8 for two years, and then 9-7 before backsliding to 6-10 in 2010. Still, anything was better than 2-14.
"I really don't think things could have got any worse than what they already were," Johnson reckoned. "Things were coming together and you could just see it."
The arrival of general manager Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak from the Broncos in 2006 was the turning point. When the Texans brought in Schaub from Atlanta a year later, it took a while for him and Johnson to align themselves.
"When Matt first got here, he would tell me every play why he didn't throw me the ball," Johnson remembered. "It got to a point where we started to see the same things out on the field.
"You just kind of know each other. In the heat of the moment, you know where the ball is going. I'm just glad that I've been able to make plays and come up big in games and I'm glad that he has the faith in me to take a chance of throwing the ball."
Presence and presents
Whenever he isn't stuffing the ball into the belly of Arian Foster, his 1,000-yard running back, Schaub usually is looking for No. 80 downfield.
"The ultimate security blanket," he said. "If push comes to shove and we need a play, I know I'm going to go in his direction."
After last year's injury, the Texans weren't sure whether Johnson could return to his customary top-of-the-line form.
"After what he went through and watching early in the year . . . I think there was some concern on his part and my part," said Kubiak. "We were trying to work through some things, limit the reps, do all the right things to get him back.
"Then all of a sudden we come out of New York [in early October], and since then, it's just been, 'Game on.' "
The Texans are savoring the holiday season now, and Johnson spent Tuesday afternoon at a local Toys 'R' Us store watching a dozen at-risk children fill shopping carts with gifts for themselves and their siblings in 80 seconds as he picked up the $20,000 tab.
"It's a great thing to be able to help people in need," said Johnson, who established his charitable foundation when he was a rookie. "I always said if I was to make it to the NFL I would always give back to the community."
Even if he were wearing a Santa suit, Johnson would be recognizable in Sam Houston's town. If he didn't leave when his team was drilling nothing but dust, he's certainly not leaving in the middle of a gusher.
"I don't plan on going anywhere," he declared.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.