Texans and Their Fans Prepare for a Season Knowing J.J. Watt Is Mortal

If you’re a Houston Texans fan, you’ve probably had an uneasy pit in your stomach for most of 2016, a general queasiness that involuntarily mutes any feelings of optimism about the short-term and long-term prospects of this football team. It’s okay to admit it, because, trust me, we all feel it.

If you’re trying to retrace your steps back to the genesis of this malaise bordering on fear, it likely started early in the third quarter of the Texans’ playoff game this past January against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was then that J.J. Watt did what he’d done a few thousand times before since arriving in the NFL in 2011, getting outside leverage on a left tackle and making a beeline for the quarterback, in this case, Chiefs signal caller Alex Smith.

Only this time, the pop we heard was not Watt’s helmet pulverizing Smith’s rib cage. No, the pop we heard was Watt’s groin snapping in two as he crumpled to the ground like a grizzly bear hit by a tranquilizer dart. That would be J.J. Watt’s last play of the season. The anger following the Texans’ 30-0 loss was almost secondary to the realization that afternoon that Watt had been broken.

We hoped that would be the end of the injury discussion with Watt, that he’d get groin surgery (or whatever procedure is performed on quarterback-crushing cyborgs) and go back to raining down fury on opposing offenses once again in 2016. However, it didn’t stop.

Just weeks after the season ended, in late March, Watt rattled off the list of his 2015 injuries during an interview on my radio show. It was quite the extended medley, an awakening to just how little we civilians realize the pain he (and football players in general) play in every week. As it turned out, Watt had played half the 2015 season with a herniated disk in his lower back. Unfortunately, an offseason away from football contact didn’t help the healing, and on July 20, Watt underwent another surgery, this time to repair his back.

Fast-forward from there to the start of training camp a week or so later, and from there to wherever you’re reading this right now, and if you’re a Texans fan, you probably have that aforementioned pit in your stomach again. You may have some beads of sweat on the brow. Your heart is probably racing a little bit faster. These are the physical reactions to the new world we live in, a world in which J.J. Watt, the greatest football player in the history of this city and the masking agent for so many deficiencies for so many years with his team’s roster, may miss games.

“I don’t know, some big, long word,” Watt said when asked exactly what the name of the procedure was that the doctor performed. “I just know that it took the herniated disc out of my back.” That long word Watt refers to is “microdiscectomy,” a minimally invasive procedure that removes the herniated disc and, to put it in Watt’s terms, “[takes] a whole bunch of crap out of [my] back.”

If you’re looking for other prominent NFL players who have undergone the same procedure, both Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had herniated disk surgery back in 2013. That these two are essentially the recent poster children for this type of surgery should be both encouraging and frightening, if you’re a fan of Watt and the Texans.

On the one hand, both returned from the surgery to play at a high level. Gronk, in particular, ranks alongside Watt among the most valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL. On the other hand, however, both Gronk and Romo always live with the proverbial scarlet letter of pending injury doom, the constant caveat related to their questionable health.

Watch a Patriots fan discuss Gronk’s supreme greatness or a Cowboys fan talk about Romo’s steely leadership — they’re never totally at ease, never completely comfortable, because they have surgical proof of how beat up those two really are, and the only thing that feels more fragile than the physical welfare of those players is that fan’s confidence that said welfare remains intact.

Is this where we are now with J.J. Watt? Go to YouTube and put “jj watt injury” in the search box — you get the aforementioned groin injury play, you get the crimson mask from Watt’s busted nose from a couple of years ago, you get a news story on the elbow injury that kept him out of training camp in 2012. But none of these are injuries that involve the spine. This herniated disk is next-level stuff.

“I think that’s the thing with the back that’s a little bit different than any other injury. I have to listen to the doctors a little bit more on this one because you can’t just feel it out,” Watt said. “It’s your spine, so you have to be smart, which I’m doing. I’m listening to them; I’m doing everything they say.”

Watt’s absence, not to mention the ongoing need to be acutely aware of his health once he returns, amps up the pressure on everybody in the Texans’ facility, but in particular these four entities:

The Texans’ general manager just got a four-year extension through the 2020 season, despite having constructed teams that have produced just a 79-81 record in his ten seasons. It could very well be that, if we’ve seen the best of Watt, then his best years were spent treading water with rosters assembled with Band-Aid quarterbacks and horrific draft classes. That’s on Smith, who should now be under intense pressure to keep from wasting the remaining prime years of the franchise’s greatest player. (Of course, a four-year extension conveys the exact opposite of pressure, but I digress.)

Weaver, a former Texans defensive end during the early years of Gary Kubiak and a rising star in the coaching ranks, is in his first season as an assistant on Bill O’Brien’s staff. As a coach, he is probably best known for sending three Buffalo Bill defensive linemen to the Pro Bowl as their defensive line coach back in 2013. With Watt’s missing all of training camp, and, frankly, with preserving Watt’s health once he returns a priority, it is incumbent upon Weaver to quickly develop the young players on the defensive line depth chart — Christian Covington, Devon Still, Jeoffrey Pagan and D.J. Reader chief among them.
Even if Watt were fully healthy, it would be time for Clowney to show why the team drafted him with the first overall pick in 2014. Clowney has spent his first two years in the NFL dealing with a litany of injuries, including microfracture knee surgery in 2014. Now, finally fully healthy, he must become a difference maker in Watt’s absence and upon Watt’s return in order to relieve Watt of the massive burden he carries on this defense. “I wouldn’t say any pressure. I still have to do my job regardless of who is out here or not,” Clowney said when asked about Watt’s absence. “As a Texan, there are guys counting on me. I’m just going to step my role up knowing he isn’t here. We don’t know when he’s going to be back, so we just have to come out here and perform and do what we can do.”

Watt has repeatedly given credit to the Texans’ team of doctors for getting him ready to play throughout 2015, when he was dealing with not only the herniated disk, but also the groin injury and the broken left hand late in the season that forced him to wear a club-like cast that prevented him from using his fingers. Those doctors will now be under the microscope as they try to balance Watt’s long-term health with his insatiable thirst to play every Sunday.

For all of his transcendent greatness in his first five seasons in the league — the 20-plus sack seasons, the game-changing touchdowns, the dozens of batted passes — Watt’s greatest accomplishment may ultimately be his mere availability. From 2013 through 2015, he played in 94 percent, 93 percent and 96 percent, respectively, of his team’s snaps each year, ungodly numbers for a position in the trenches and for a player who routinely has two or three opponents pummeling him every single play.

Change has been a theme at Texans training camp the past few years. In 2014, it was the wholesale changes in the coaching staff and at quarterback. In 2015, it was the departure of Andre Johnson. We knew training camp would feel noticeably weird again this season with Brock Osweiler taking over at quarterback and with Arian Foster’s departure. Watt’s injury, though, recalibrated that weirdness, relegating the arrival of Osweiler and several other shiny, new offensive weapons to mere backdrop to the mystery of when J.J. Watt would return and how he will look when he finally suits up.

As training camp began on July 31 in front of the media and a throng of 5,000 Texans fans, the questions buzzing among those in attendance were predictably all about J.J. Watt — Where is he? How is he? Is he walking? Running? Box jumping?

Those questions were answered about midway through the first practice, when Watt emerged from the runway and onto the practice field while the team was doing drills. He was in a hooded sweatshirt and shorts, towel draped around his neck, and he lightly jogged over to the bench area. The only thing missing was some WWE-style ring entrance music as the crowd roared, cheers that were part adulation and part relief, the prevailing thought being “Hey, at least he’s jogging!”

After practice, Watt reassured everyone that he was feeling fine, but gave no firm timetable for his return. “My body feels good. It’s just a matter of now listening to [the doctors] and what they tell me to do,” he said. Watt’s never missed a game in his NFL career. He is hopeful of returning for Week 1 this season, but this is rehab from back surgery, so we will see.

The bigger picture is what Watt’s 2015 injury list represents — the torn muscles, the broken bones, the herniated disk. It’s a painful realization, but J.J. Watt, the quarterback-crushing cyborg and walking defensive cheat code, is indeed mortal.

We knew he bled. Now we know he breaks. Football season is supposed to be fun. This isn’t fun.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast