Texans fans woke up Friday morning to a harsh reality and a cold, new world — a world in which J.J. Watt is now viewed as possibly football-mortal, having undergone back surgery earlier in the week for a herniated disk.
If you thought that watching Watt limp off the field, barely able to use his lower extremities during last season's 30-0 playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, was harrowing, wait until you see a defensive line in the preseason anchored by Devon Still and Christian Covington at defensive end! That's no disrespect to either of those men, but as both would readily admit, they are not J.J. Watt. Not even in the same universe.
Ultimately, this may just be the first truly public medical hiccup for J.J. Watt, an injury sustained doing something other than playing football, in a business that is full of medical hiccups even for the most solid of iron-men. According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the Texans' medical staff expect Watt to be back on the field for the first game of the regular season at home against the Bears.
In the meantime, Watt's injury, serious or not, raises several key points and/or questions, some particularly germane if there is a setback in his recovery:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, your time is now.
I've said several times that, with a fully healthy Watt, Clowney is the x-factor that could take the Texans defense from being a very good outfit built on the greatness of one man and the goodness of several others to being a top-three-level wrecking machine, with transcendent ability to collapse a pocket from both sides. If the Watt don't get ya, the Clowney will! Now, if Watt is shaking off rust to start the season or, God forbid, misses games, it'll be imperative that Clowney play at the level that's been expected of him for the Texans to win games. They don't start the season against great quarterbacks, but in Weeks 1 and 2, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith are both sneaky. These aren't rookies or young quarterbacks. Clowney needs to step up.
2. The physical void will be evident, but so will the leadership void.
This is not a commentary about a lack of leadership skills with other veterans on this Texans defense — Brian Cushing, Vince Wilfork, Johnathan Joseph, specifically — but this has evolved into Watt's defense, not only because of the sea of sacks, tackles for loss and batted passes, but because of his attitude as well. Visually, he is the one firing the team up before games and in the locker room, and if we are to read into that, then the psychological void will be palpable. My radio partner, Ted Johnson, a ten-year linebacker with the Patriots, said that any time star players were missing from a huddle in his days, you felt it. It was noticeable and had an effect. I will believe a career linebacker with three Super Bowl rings.
3. Do the Texans regret their approach (or lack thereof) to the defensive end position this offseason?
There is only so much you can do in one offseason, and the Texans' focus obviously was (necessarily) on fixing as much as they could on the offensive side of the ball. However, a body or two at defensive end might have been a good idea, not just because they still haven't settled on anything at the end opposite Watt, but because injuries could eventually bite (and now have bitten) the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Nothing they can do about it now, except hope. Still, Covington and company manifest a solution. Also, the waiver wire becomes an interesting source for bodies now.
4. Is J.J. Watt still a bargain?
Here is J.J. Watt's contractual information. Basically, he is entering the first of the six seasons he had tacked onto his deal in 2014 at a then-league record (for a defensive player) $100 million...
In short, Watt would probably need to show up to camp on a stretcher with fence posts for legs for this deal to be a bad one. If J.J. Watt is upright and functional, I'll wager on his playing at a level commensurate with this deal, especially as the salary cap continues to explode over the next few seasons.
5. How badly do Texans fans want J.J. Watt to be healthy?
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Our JJ Watt- related poll question -- Texan fans, would you rather ...— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) July 22, 2016
Yes, 56 percent of Texans fans would go under the knife themselves if it ensured a healthy J.J. Watt for Week 1 of the regular season.
Hopefully, it doesn't come to that.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.