Since he was drafted a little less than six years ago, the Texans have never played a game without J.J. Watt.
He’s played in and started 83 regular season games and 5 playoff games. He has played 4,120 snaps since 2012, 170 of which came this year in the first three games of the season. In addition to playing and starting every game, J.J. Watt has been the best player in the NFL since 2012. He’s been an All-Pro the last five years. He’s won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards. He almost stole the NFL MVP from Aaron Rodgers in 2014 after having the greatest regular season from a defensive player ever. Along the way, Watt’s picked up 76 sacks, 299 solo tackles, 213 quarterback hits, 420 quarterback pressures, 133 tackles for a loss, defended 45 passes, and recovered 13 fumbles. Since he’s joined the NFL, J.J. Watt has been better than everyone at everything.
It’s hard to overstate @JJWatt’s dominance over the past half-decade. Here’s a sample from @NFLResearch: pic.twitter.com/DtETSm10bo— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) September 28, 2016
For the foreseeable future, all of that is gone. Last offseason, Watt had back and groin surgery. He sat out all of training camp. He managed to make it back for Week One and played 88% of the snaps against the Bears, although he looked sluggish and not the quarterback-devouring, offensive drive killing, denizen of the backfield he usually is. Last night, the news broke that, after playing the Patriots on a short week, he re-injured his back and will be placed on Injured Reserve, endangering the rest of his 2015 season.
Now the focus is on how the Texans are going to replace J.J. Watt. Antonio Smith just signed a one-year contract. Christian Covington and Devon Still will play more than the 40 combined defensive snaps they have so far. Jadeveon Clowney will need to step up and be more than football good; he will need to be box score good. The tangible production that hasn’t been there yet needs to arrive.
None of those guys are going to replace J.J. Watt. This defense that has been a top ten unit every year (except for 2013) is going to flap around and gasp for air. Like the fish flopping around on the dock, no one in Houston knows what life is like outside the calm waters Watt has brought. Will the Texans’ defense fall to 15th in the league? To 20th? To 25th? I have no idea.
Regardless, I really don’t care about this team, or winning games, or production, or the AFC South race right now. None of that stuff really matters to me. After watching so many bad teams for so many years, the wins and losses matter less. The basic level of enjoyment I get from sports is watching these athletes, who are the best in the world at what they do, play these games. Every Sunday for the last five years, J.J. Watt has enriched my life.
Watching him spring past Tyron Smith immediately off the snap, going hungry hungry hippo on all those fumbles, pick-sixing Andy Dalton in Houston’s first playoff game, turning the dirt into mud with Zach Mettenberger’s viscera, jabbing with his right foot, bouncing left and swimming over guards, only to then come from the backside to make tackles no one has ever made, going down on one knee to fight off double teams with upper body strength alone, kicking the ball back to himself to recover a fumble and return it for a touchdown against the Colts, sticking down both feet as the recipient of the only fade route Ryan Mallett has ever completed, having one of the greatest defensive performances of all time against Buffalo in a game where he didn’t even record a sack...all of it, every Sunday and the occasional Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, has been how I’ve spent pieces of my finite time. I wouldn’t have used it any other way.
This injury is the devastating part of football. You fall in love with teams and certain players, only to enjoy them for just a small period of time. There are other sports where people can play and compete at a high level, for the same team, for ten long years. You usually don’t see that in football unless it’s a quarterback or a kicker. Generally, these guys get five years of peak play and then things like this happen. Now, for what looks to be the rest of this season at least, J.J. Watt won’t be snuffing the life out of offenses and screaming lame one-liners.
Whether Houston wins six games or ten games this year, it doesn’t matter. Every Sunday for the rest of the year, everything is going to be so, so, so much worse.