Back in March, J.J. Watt came on my radio for a nice little offseason interview. My cohosts and I had some laughs with him and talked about his offseason, his charity softball game and how his body was healing from the numerous injuries he had suffered in 2015. It was in response to a question about that last item, the healing, when he shared this with us:
“Last year was definitely by far the most strenuous on my body that I’ve ever had, fighting through a bunch of things that I’ve never dealt with before. We had the broken hand. I had a herniated disk in my back halfway through the year. I had, obviously, everything that went on with my groin and I don’t think everyone fully understands what that process was like.”
Wait...what? Herniated disc?
We knew about the broken hand that rendered him merely very good (as opposed to his usual "otherworldly") for about a month, and the torn groin muscle that ended his season, but that was the first we'd heard about any sort of back injury. However, Watt treated it casually enough to where we reported it but then went on with our offseason.
And why not? J.J. was still doing his usual routine of flipping tires, hosting award shows, filming commercials and raising millions of dollars for charity, so why wouldn't we just move along with our offseason of doing whatever it is we do, right?
Well, little did we know that this herniated disk would become something that could potentially derail the Texans' season and possibly ruin the fall. In late July, Watt had surgery to remove the herniated disc, and made it back in time for the season opener against the Chicago Bears. After three games in which Watt had a moment or two but looked completely mortal last Thursday in New England, we got this news from Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network last night:
Sources: #Texans star DL JJ Watt has re-injured his back and is expected to be out for an extended period of time. Could be the season.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 28, 2016
Yes, folks, we are now truly in the uncharted territory of life without J.J. Watt. This is not a day or a week off from practice, or Watt having to deal with a cast on a de facto club hand. Until we hear from somebody with the Texans who deals with injuries openly and honestly (read: NOT Bill O'Brien), it's fair to panic.
O'Brien will meet with the media later today with an update, but for now, let's do our best, with the limited information we have, to answer a few questions:
Is J.J. Watt done for the season?
We have no idea how long Watt is out for, but we do know that he will go on injured reserve, which leaves open the possibility for the team to bring him back in a minimum of eight weeks (six weeks required plus two weeks of mandatory practice time). If Watt is missing time, it's safe to say, this injury is pretty serious, and honestly, shutting him down for the season for anything short of his return at 100 percent feels like a distinct possibility, and might be the prudent thing to do, considering the team's long-term investment in him. Which brings us to....
Whose fault is this?
This is the one where we really don't know, and unless some technology is invented that allows us to turn back time and crawl inside J.J. Watt's body and soul to know exactly how he felt running into the field in Week 1 against the Bears, we will never know. What we do know is that he played in all but 12 of a possible 119 snaps BEFORE playing the New England Patriots on three days' rest, and taking a normal workload in that game before the Texans raised the white flag. Again, we need to hear from somebody HONEST ABOUT INJURIES with the Texans before judging these decisions, but the pool of possible culprits includes the coaches, the medical staff, J.J. himself and/or nobody. When I say "nobody," understand that it could just be that everything looked fine heading into Week 1, that J.J. felt fine and the back got tweaked again through the normal course of a game. It's football. It's a violent sport. The blame game on workload is a tricky and semi-dangerous one. However, it's safe to say that J.J. is likely a player who needs to be protected from his own feelings of invincibility at times, and if and when he comes back healthy (please, football gods, let him come back healthy), will need to be protected from himself going forward.
Who will replace J.J. Watt?
The short answer is that it would take a pack of coked-up wolverines to replace what Watt provides when he is healthy, so no one will replace his production. Actually, to be clear, no group of people on the Texans' defense will replace his production. He is irreplaceable. That said, it's probably Christian Covington who fills the role of "next man up," and the team just re-signed former Texans favorite Antonio Smith, who was last seen as a backup on last season's Broncos team. So...yeah.
How drastically different should expectations be with Watt out?
Well, in times like this, I lean on the unflinchingly rigid rules of the gambling community, and while Watt's injury was getting treated last night on the news with greater urgency than the Memorial Day flood and the West U. gunman combined, the fact of the matter is, unless a player is a quarterback, Vegas will likely not adjust expectations for win totals on a team by more than one win, tops. Even a player as great as J.J. Watt.... and if you think that's crazy, let's not forget J.J. Watt played all 16 games of a 2-14 season back in 2013, and played them at a HIGH level. If you expected 10-6, then you should now expect 9-7, at worst. Hell, they started this season 2-1 with J.J. giving you about what a souped-up version of Jared Crick have you for the last two years. That's just a fact. Anyway, trust Vegas, kids. They know. (For what it's worth, Vegas had the Texans win total at nine before the season started, already knowing Watt was injured. I'd be shocked if they expect differently.)
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Would the Texans have done anything differently this past offseason (draft, free agency) knowing what they know now?
I would hope so. I was shouting from the rooftops for them to take a defensive end (or, at the very least, a defensive tackle with some "end" characteristics) as insurance in case Watt had to miss any time going forward, even before his "herniated disc" reveal on my show. I don't care what kind of superhero the guy is, the human body just can't play 96 percent of the snaps in every NFL game, face double and triple teams, essentially wrestling multiple grizzly bears every down for 16 (or more) weeks, and expect to just reboot every year. This injury likely has far-reaching ripple effects on how the Texans approach this upcoming offseason.
Who does this put the spotlight on?
Jadeveon Clowney was the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. With Watt out, Clowney's time is up. He's got to take his game up a notch now. He can't replace Watt. No one can. We've established that. But he needs to begin playing like a consistent double-digit-sack guy. Put simply in terms Texans fans can understand, Clowney has to at least become Mario Williams, 2008-ish version.
The Texans take the field this Sunday at noon against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium, and for the first time since the end of the 2010 season, they'll do it without J.J. Watt. Football is cruel sometimes.
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.