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Was Former Texans DE JJ Watt’s 2014 Season the Greatest Single Season for a Defensive Player Ever?

It was outstanding, but just HOW outstanding?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

This season, the Houston Texans will add to their Ring of Honor. Joining WR (and soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer if the HOF voters have any semblance of brains) Andre Johnson and founding owner Bob McNair, will be DL and Hero-of-the-City JJ Watt. Slated for October 1, the one-time heavily-booed first round draft pick out of Wisconsin will take his place in Texans immortality...officially.

Some of the big highlights on his playing resume:

  • 3x NFL Defensive Player of the Year
  • 5x Pro-Bowler
  • 5x All-Pro
  • 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year (Primarily on the strength of raising $41.2M in relief funds for the city of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey)

With all of those accolades, it is tough to figure out just what was his greatest season. However, his best is likely the 2014 campaign. This would culminate in his third DPOY award in a four year stretch. What exactly did he do in that season? (individual stats courtesy of Pro-Football Reference)

  • 20.5 sacks
  • 5.0 fumble recoveries
  • 4.0 forced fumbles
  • 78 total tackles/59 solo
  • 29.0 TFLs
  • 10.0 passes defended
  • 1 interception
  • 2 defensive touchdowns
  • 1.0 safety

This went along with three receiving TDs as a short-yardage/goal-line TE (harkening back to his earlier days at Western Michigan).

Setting aside the NFL bias towards offensive players and QBs at that, the biggest reason Watt finished second in the MVP voting has to do with the Texans only mustering a 9-7 record. A major jump from 2-14 the year before, but most would view the ‘13 season as an aberration. The Texans would just miss the playoffs on the final day. While that scenario has been discussed in previous writings, let’s look at where Watt’s season stands among other great single-season defensive performances.

First, let’s look at any past defensive oriented MVPs:

New York Giants Football
Hein is the one in the #7 Jersey
Photo By: Tom Watson/NY Daily News via Getty Images

C/LB Mel Hein

Going old school, Hein won the Carr Trophy back in 1938 (the OG of NFL MVP awards). This was back in the days of two-way players, so Hein logged time as center and LB, so one can argue that it is not a purely defensive award, but a defender getting MVP votes counts, thus, he is in this discussion. Stats from that time, especially his 1938 MVP season are not readily available, but it says something that his peers voted him even if he primarily played the less-glorious spots of C/LB.

Minneapolis Star photo by Charles Bjorgen Hall of Famer Alan Page, a Minnesota Vikings tackle, in 1971 became the first defensive player to win the NFL MVP award.

1971: DE Alan Page

One of the stalwarts of the Purple People Eaters, he would be the second Minnesota Vikings player in three years to claim such an award (Joe Kapp took the honors as QB in 1969). Also, he is the first full-time defensive player to win MVP (as voted by the Associated Press).

Key stats:

  • 9.0 sacks (over 14 games and sacks were not official stats until 1982)
  • 3.0 fumble recoveries
  • 2.0 safeties
Washington Redskins v New York Giants

1986: OLB Lawrence Taylor

Perhaps the benchmark for all-time dominant defensive seasons. For a man that brought terror into the hearts of QBs for the totality of his 13 year career, this season was his magnum opus, leading a powerful Giants team to their first Super Bowl. Both the AP and Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) voted to honor the North Carolina alum.

Key stats:

  • 20.5 sacks
  • 105 tackles
  • 2.0 forced fumbles
  • 5.0 passes defended

(Note: They didn’t quite keep the same stats in 1986 that they did in 2014)

That does not include his play-off run, which included the legendary pick-six of San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana in a 49-3 obliteration on the New York Giants’ path to winning Super Bowl XXI.

There are some other defenders that logged significant MVP votes on the defensive side.

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

1990: Bruce Smith (finished fifth):

The defensive powerhouse on the Buffalo Bills, Smith’s 1990 season got overshadowed by the offensive juggernaut that was Kelly, Thurman Thomas and the K-Gun offense. Still, football experts thought enough of his performance to give him plenty of quality votes.

Key stats:

  • 19.0 sacks
  • 101 total tackles
  • 4.0 forced fumbles

(See note about 1986 Lawrence Taylor stats)

San Diego Chargers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

2000: LB Ray Lewis (finished 4th):

Given the legendary status of the Baltimore Ravens’ defense, a historian might wonder why Lewis didn’t garner more MVP consideration. That honor went to the St. Louis Rams do-it-all RB Marshall Faulk. Perhaps the off-field baggage from the previous off-season along with the NFL preference for offensive players led to Lewis getting blanked in this category. He did make up for it with a Super Bowl MVP over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV (even if QB Trent Dilfer snagged the Disney commercials/trips).

Key stats:

  • 3.0 sacks
  • 137 total tackles
  • 14.0 Tackles for Loss
  • 6.0 Passes Defended
  • 2 interceptions
  • 3 fumble recoveries

There is not quite the equivalent WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for football like there is for baseball, but one could try to use Pro-Football Reference’s Annual Value number (taking into account that stats weren’t kept the same across eras). The highest AV for defensive players (where stats are applicable/apply):

  • JJ Watt 2014: 23
  • Lawrence Taylor 1986: 23
  • Ray Lewis 2000: 23
  • Bruce Smith 1990: 17 (Highest AV was in 1996 - 21)
  • Alan Page 1971: 21 (Interestingly enough, he scored 23 in 1969 and 24 in 1970, when he finished 3rd in the MVP voting).
  • Mel Heim 1938: N/A

Not previously discussed, but with significant AV:

  • DL Aaron Donald 2020: 24 (13.5 sacks/45 tackles/14 TFLs/1 PD/4 FF/1 FR)
  • CB Deion Sanders 1996: 23 (2 INT/1 FF/3 FR/1 TD...he was also used on offense and special teams)

NOTE: For both, they were All-Pro, but did not garner any MVP votes (Donald won DPOY)

Yet, in looking at all of the other names on this list, Watt’s 2014 season stands alone as having no post-season/playoff action. For the others:

  • Hein (Giants): NFL Champions
  • Page (Vikings): Loss in Divisional Round
  • Taylor (Giants): Super Bowl Champions
  • Smith (Bills): Lost in Super Bowl
  • Sanders (Cowboys): Lost in Divisional Round
  • Lewis (Ravens): Super Bowl Champions
  • Donald (Rams): Lost in Divisional Round

What does it say about the impact of Watt’s 2014 season? This is a season where his team didn’t even qualify for post-season play. Yet, Watt snagged one of the highest defensive AVs in history, and finished second in the MVP voting (MVP Aaron Rodgers did get to the playoffs, falling short in the NFC Championship game). How bad would Houston have been without Watt’s greatest season? Maybe not quite 2-14 again, but probably nowhere near 9-7 and in playoff contention, given a rotation of journeyman QBs (albeit with a strong running game) and a defense that relied so much on the Wisconsin alum. Certainly, it gave Bill O’Brien as strong a debut season as could be expected given the roster and leadership turnover.

Many a barroom sports debate could center on who really had the greatest defensive season of all time. Still, given all he did with his stats, and impact to the team, even if you won’t, or can’t put him at the top spot, you should not take long for a roll call of greatest defensive seasons to get to 2014 JJ Watt.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, how about a more...neutral observer? (Bottom Line Up Front: Yeah, Watt in 2014 was pretty awesome)