Last Sunday, J.J. Watt recovered his thirteenth (13th) career fumble. Mitch Morse's snap grew wings and flew over Alex Smith's head. Watt ran straight ahead and past right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who was setting the pocket while oblivious to what was going on behind him. Smith chased the bobbling ball. He overran it. He planted, turned, and dove back for it. Unluckily for him, Watt got there the moment Smith dove for it. Watt leaped with his arms wide open and elbowed Smith, knocking him back away from the ball.
Watt swallows the ball up and cradles it. Brock Osweiler then threw the only touchdown of the game on the following play.
Since he arrived in the league in 2011, no player has recovered as many fumbles as J.J. Watt has.
J. J. Watt now with 13 career Fum recov, most in the NFL since 2011. pic.twitter.com/Lni7vf1hGp— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 18, 2016
Forcing fumbles is a skill, and recovering fumbles is a fluky thing. There is no correlation year to year when it comes to fumble recoveries. The oblong ball skips and bounds around in different directions as a hydra of arms lash and bodies plop to ensnare that white laced thing. No one excels at snatching and covering the erratic ball. No one except for J.J. Watt.
Back when our lives and the Houston Texans' roster were very different in 2011, Shaun Cody had a weekly web series called "On the Nose With Shaun Cody". It was named that because Shaun Cody played nose tackle. The very first episode had the Texans' defensive messiah on it, back before he dreamed big and worked hard, danced on Verizon commercials, crafted his own logo that both looked like Js and 9s at the same time, and had people buy more tickets to watch him play softball than they do to watch the Houston Astros in their own stadium. This was the shaved head, pizza delivery boy rookie version of J.J. Watt.
The inaugural episode followed Watt's first game against the Peyton Manningless Indianapolis Colts. Indy lost 34-7 with Kerry Collins at quarterback. Watt had five tackles and a fumble recovery. Shaun Cody recovered a fumble too. And they talked about this.
The context isn't that important. Is the ball bouncing or standing still? If you jump on top of the ball, you may get the wind knocked out of you. The ball can squirt out anywhere and you can't control it. When the ball is recovered, you want to cradle it so no one can steal it from you.
What is important is the subtext. When you first learn something, you gain a basic understanding of it. Then you learn intermediate principles through studying and doing it. Once the base of the pyramid is completed, you go back and dive as deep as possible into specifics, soaking the sponge dry. Finally, there is nothing left but that small sliver at the top. That's what this is. As a rookie, Watt already understood the foundation and specifics of defensive line play. He was already learning things as specific as the art of fumble recoveries. That's one of the infinite reasons why he's one of the greatest defensive players of all time.
With NFL Game Pass, I traveled back through time and re-watched every one of J.J. Watt's thirteen fumble recoveries. Through my journey, I made sure not to blow on any butterflies or get bored and pull out an iPhone without a headphone jack. Along the way, I found five distinct ways that Watt has recovered fumbles over the years. These are those five ways:
|Under/Around the Pile||2|
|Oh, Wow, That's a Football||4|
Yes, a few of these plays find that small sliver and intersect to make it more than thirteen. The fumble from last week's exorcism was an aborted snap and a yank player. Together these five specific recoveries make up the thirteen Watt has recovered in his career.
Under/Around the Pile
The under/around the pile is when everyone dives for the ball and Watt somehow comes up with it. This under the pile instance came on Watt's second fumble recovery against Arizona back in 2013. Rashard Mendenhall (remember him?) is running in his own red zone and smacks into Watt. Because of the number of bodies. he's stood up.
Watt grabs the ball, thrashes it downward, and rips it from Mendenhall. The ball is somewhere down there.
Everyone is standing in traffic except for Watt.
Then everyone is on the ground, rolling and tumbling.
Amongst all the limbs, Watt somehow stands up with the ball.
The other one I enjoy even more. It was against Jacksonville in Week 17 last year. Brian Cushing sticks Denard Robinson and forces him to fumble. Like a farm of Golden Retrievers and a ball in the water, everyone dives to the ground. Watt is held by the right tackle and ends up on the outside of the pile. Rather than hop on pop, he strolls behind the mash of bodies. The ball skitters out. He sneaks around the corner and pulls it in.
This is horrifying. Watt has an insidious connection to the football. It whispers to him. Humans have more than five senses. Watt has all those and some sort of magnetoception with the football.
Oh, Wow, That's a Football
This type of fumble occurs on running plays. The quarterback misses the hand-off. A linebacker forces a fumble. The ball bounces off a leg and shoots like a pinball off a bumper. While everyone else is still working on their assignments, Watt is looking for the football. That's the key. Blockers are just obstacles to the ball. He sees through them. Plays around them. Always knows where the ball is. After Watt recognizes the ball before everyone else, he ejects himself from the blocker and the play and screams after it. This could be some type of metaphor of how Watt is always working to achieve his goals while others are enjoying the less satisfying pleasures of life.
Watt has some immortal plays of his career. The pick-six against Cincinnati in the Texans' first playoff game. The E.J. Manuel pick-six against Buffalo. The almost-sack of Tony Romo where he beat Tyron Smith out of his stance. This simple fumble recovery against Washington falls in the same category.
In Week One of 2014, the Redskins moved the ball into the red zone. Washington is running an outside zone play to the right. Robert Griffin III trips during the hand-off. As gravity pulls him down, he extends the ball out and off of Alfred Morris's chest.
Tyler Polumbus is driven back by #99, just as he was all game long. Watt has outside leverage and gets a glimpse at the fumble. He spins around the right tackle, comes from the back of the block, and finds the ball immediately. He leaps from a low angle out of the block and bolts forward from an almost perpendicular position. Both he and Morris dive at the same time. Watt turns into the giant eagle from The Lady in the Water and stretches his arms like a condor. Then he reaches out one claw like the mouth of a Hungry Hungry Hippo. Morris flips over the top of him.
Of all the fumble recoveries in his career, this one is the most underappreciated and forgotten.
Watt has strip sacked quarterbacks lots of times over his career. More than two times, in fact. It is so difficult to force the fumble on the sack and recover the ball. The player is running full speed, usually with a blocker hanging on in a futile attempt to prevent the tragedy that's about to enfold. There are eleven people around the ball. The football goes on no identifiable predetermined path. It's chaotic splendor.
My favorite of the two is the smoothest strip sack I've ever seen. This is like watching a plane take off and land all at the same time, into a velvet sky and on top of a surface made of feathers.
The left tackle is matched up against Watt on his outside shoulder. Watt instantly rips past his shoulder and then bends and flattens his path to the quarterback. The quarterback is Jake Locker. He's looking the other way with his arm pulled back. Watt is rampaging ahead and sticks his arm out to knock the ball out of Locker's hand. He keeps sprinting. The ball shoots out towards the sideline directly ahead of him. In one motion, Watt beats the tackle, strips the quarterback, and recovers the ball. This is free-form poetry. I'm sure Jake Locker thinks back on his career, thinks of this play, and thinks about how happy he is he doesn't have to play football anymore.
Like the piles mentioned before, the aborted snap looks similar on plays from under center. The quarterback misses the snap or the ball punches the center's undercarriage. It then sits underneath a lineman's leg. It gets kicked. It squirts away. It sits underneath another leg. It gets kicked again. It squirts away again. And while everyone else is blocking or trying not to get blocked, Watt and the quarterback are frantically searching for the ball.
The difference come on plays where the ball is mis-snapped in the shotgun formation. Whether the ball goes over the head or the snap is unexpected, Watt sprints past the block and chases after the ball. It's just him and the quarterback. Of all the plays, of all the thirteen fumbles, this is the one that sticks out. This is the one that everyone remembers. This is the Jewel of the Nile. This is the Canton highlight reel. This is the sunset in a colorless world.
Remember that Thursday Night Football in 2014 when T.Y. Hilton caught 3 passes for 300 yards, the Colts went up by 3,000 points, and the Texans almost came back? Remember that game when Watt scored one of many touchdowns? Of course you do.
Andrew Luck takes the snap from the shotgun formation. Watt is lined up as the three technique, in between the right guard and right tackle. Luck isn't ready for the snap. It bounces off his hands and lands to the right. Then, like chasing an ice cube along the floor, Luck hobbles over after it.
Watt sees it. He sprints ahead. The guard turns his shoulders and can't keep up. Watt shoves the right tackle in his way down to the ground. Both Watt and Luck dive for the ball at the same time, Watt from a little bit of a greater distance. They both hit the ball at the same time. It comes underneath Watt's stomach, but he bounces past it. The guard lands on top of Luck while he tries to reach out and wrangle it. While on his back, Watt lifts the ball up and turns. It meekly rises from the ground. He looks like he's pressing both triggers, X, and clicking the thumbstick to pull off a slip and slide in a game of NBA Street.
Then Watt has a great first touch and plants the ball down right in front of him. I mean, he kicks the ball back himself. He kicks the ball back to himself. I keep saying and watching it, but it doesn't make it any more real of a thing that actually happened. It's a reality-questioning football play.
Watt beats Brian Cushing to the ball, then picks it up and runs for a touchdown. Whatever. I can use words to try and contextualize what occurred, but it's no use. This play makes zero sense. Something like this should never happen. The man kicked the ball to himself while laying down, picked it up, somehow missed being touched by a Colts' player despite all the bodies splayed around, and ran 45 yards for a touchdown.
Leading the league in batted passes, pressures, QB hits, tackles for a loss, defeats, and sacks isn't enough. J.J. Watt has also recovered the most fumbles. Watt has transcended luck and has turned a fluke into a skill. He's the best in the league at something that no one is the best at.
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