It was on a Monday following the Houston Texans’ first preseason game when Jadeveon Clowney was allowed to return to work. Make no mistake, technically he’d been working, working hard for several months now to return from microfracture surgery on his right knee, but that Monday was his first day back to work in a traditional sense — wearing a football uniform, doing drills with his teammates, being a football player and not a physical therapy patient.
Dressed in the same white practice jersey as the rest of the Texans’ defense, Clowney went through individual and one-on-one drills. As he did during his rehabilitation exercises, Clowney flashed signs of the explosiveness and raw strength that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. We saw small glimpses of why the football world was so giddy about “Clowney the Physical Specimen,” and we all felt good.
Then, once practice was over, Clowney made his way over to the press tent. As he reached the media throng, he sneered and muttered an expletive about the microphone, drawing a reminder from one Texans staffer to “try to keep it PG.” When asked about the difficulty of so many months of rehab, Clowney gave a quasi-red-flag answer about how his mom and girlfriend had to get him going some mornings. In those moments, we saw glimpses into why some football people were so concerned about “Clowney the Somewhat Immature Kid,” and we all felt slightly ill.
In actuality, about the only thing we’ve been able to glean with certainty during Jadeveon Clowney’s return to the field thus far is that he is indeed an actual person. After a lost rookie season in which his knee underwent more tuning up than a stock car at Talladega, first a meniscus cleanup and then the aforementioned microfracture procedure, Clowney was practically forgotten during the lonely monotony of recovery.
When Clowney was included in any substantive analysis on the Texans’ 2015 season, you might as well have been discussing a unicorn or The Mountain from Game of Thrones. Both of them felt just as real to Texans fans, whose only reminder that Clowney was indeed a Houston Texan, outside of four very frustrating games in 2014, was the occasional number 90 jersey spotted outside NRG Stadium amid the Great Sea of 99 Jerseys.
For Texans fans, Clowney has been more of an abstract concept than a real person, but for him, recovery from surgery that forced him to stare into the abyss of career mortality was all too real. To athletes, “microfracture” is a four-letter word. “You know I went through a lot. It was hard work, but we’re pulling it off,” he said. “More than I’ve worked in my whole life, probably, but it was worth it.”
Since arriving in 2014, Bill O’Brien has created a culture in which respect is not tied to a player’s salary cap figure or draft slot. Respect, quite simply, must be earned. Predictably, when O’Brien was asked about Clowney’s return last Monday, the Texans’ head coach made it a point to remind everyone that a handful of players returned from injury that day, not just Clowney.
“You know, it’s good to have everybody out here,” O’Brien said, never mentioning Clowney by name. “It’s always good to have as close to a 90-man roster as you can.” O’Brien followed that up by reminding everyone that reserve inside linebacker Akeem Dent also returned from injury that same day, a fact that I’m sure all seven diehard Akeem Dent fans found interesting.
Give O’Brien credit. The culture of “earned respect” trickles down to his captains. When Brian Cushing was asked about the impact of Clowney’s return, there was zero of the gushing normally reserved for a former top draft pick. “We will have to see, we will have to see. It is still very young in his career,” Cushing shrugged.
O’Brien won’t say it, nor will Cushing, but undeniably any hope the Texans have of overachieving the bar calibrated by their quarterback situation this season rests in the cartilage of Jadeveon Clowney’s right knee, especially with the uncertainty baked into every soft tissue below Arian Foster’s waist. If we presume greatness for J.J. Watt, which amazingly is not unreasonable, then Clowney is the X-factor to greatness for this defense overall — and right now the “X” is Texas-size.
Objectively, hitting successfully when picking first overall in the draft matters. Between 1999 and 2012, there were 13 No. 1 overall picks in the NFL Draft. Five of them failed to make the Pro Bowl, including quarterback David Carr, who was selected first overall by the Texans in 2002. Those five teams combined for one playoff appearance in the six seasons following those selections. Conversely, of the eight No. 1 overall picks who made the Pro Bowl, all but one made it to the playoffs with that team in the next six seasons. The moral of the story — when you go 2-14, you got to make the payoff count.
Subjectively, a healthy Clowney makes the Texans’ front seven nearly unblockable. Imagine being an opposing defensive coordinator and having to decide which Texan to double-team on first or second down. Single-blocked, Vince Wilfork stuffs any inside runs. Single-blocked, Jadeveon Clowney is a rangy, disruptive freak. Single-blocked, J.J. Watt could declare himself dictator of a small country. (For the record, if I were an opposing defensive coordinator, I’d just choose whiskey and call it a day.)
For the Texans, this will be the way: Run the football, protect the football, wreck shop on defense. It’s on the defensive side of the ball where they’ve made their major investments, using six of their last seven first-round picks on defensive players, all of whom figure prominently in the team’s plans for this coming January.
Perhaps the healthiest way to consume the Clowney Experience is to hit the mental reset button and pretend he’s a rookie all over again, an unknown whose upside could transform his team. That’s how Clowney himself sees it. “I do feel kind of like a rookie. I didn’t get to play but what...four games?” he said.
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On the field, we won’t know what Clowney has learned about the team’s defensive scheme until he actually takes the field, hopefully against Kansas City in the season opener. Off the field, we got a taste last Monday of what Clowney’s learned about Bill O’Brien’s policy on just how much to share with the media.
Last season, in interviews, Clowney was far too forthcoming about his injuries and playing status for O’Brien’s tastes, to the point that O’Brien sarcastically called him “Dr. Clowney.” Last week, Clowney was asked if he would play in the season opener, a question that would’ve elicited a 100-word response last season.
This time, Clowney’s answer was equal parts sliver of media self-awareness and harrowing slogan for his Texans’ career thus far — “We’ll see, we’ll see.”
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.