For the first time in team history, in 2017, the Houston Texans have been conducting training camp outside of Houston, at the plush Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, and, understandably, there is a newness about damn near everything. From the sub-80-degree temperatures to every throw made by rookie phenom Deshaun Watson, this camp feels different.
As the sun rises over the mountains on the north side of the Greenbrier Performance Center, J.J. Watt sends tackle Kendall Lamm backwards like a third grader on ice skates in a one-on-one drill. Next, Jadeveon Clowney does the exact same soul-crushing thing to tackle Chris Clark, and while there is theoretically nothing new about either of these individual feats by Watt and Clowney, in their juxtaposition and sheer force, we glimpse the one new 2017 phenomenon for which the Texans have been waiting more than three years — the simultaneous existence of fully healthy and self-actualized J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
When a team has the first overall pick in the NFL Draft, as the Texans did in 2014, the player it selects generally sets the philosophical tone for the franchise moving forward, so when the Texans eschewed a new quarterback for the freaky specimen that was Clowney in 2014, the message was clear — we are building through the defense by teaming him with Watt to wreck shop on offensive lines for the next decade (and we hope, someday, football gods willing, we will find a quarterback).
The cruel reality since that draft day has been that neither Watt nor Clowney has ever lined up with a full-throttle version of the other. Texans fans still see the injuries in their sleep. There’s Clowney landing awkwardly on his right leg in the 2014 season opener, and subsequently undergoing season-ending micro-fracture surgery. Then there’s Watt limping off the field in the 2015 playoff loss to Kansas City with a shredded groin and a herniated disk in back, both of which would require off-season surgery, with the disk eventually needing a second procedure, ending his 2016 season after three games.
While Clowney sat on the sidelines in 2014 and awkwardly attempted to come of age in 2015, Watt was winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and while Watt’s back was toast after three games in 2016, Clowney evolved into a Pro Bowler and one of the most fearsome forces in the league. Now, both healthy, both ready, the stars have finally aligned for the Texans.
For Watt’s part, it feels good just to return to his old normal. “It’s just good to be back on the field, be back playing football, be back with my teammates. It’s just — it feels good. It feels like where I belong,” smiled Watt. “We’ll be smart about [protecting his back] from here on, we’ll take days off here and there, but it’s just nice to be playing football.”
In padded drills and intra-squad scrimmages, Watt has looked like the dominant Watt of 2014 again, and the relief in the organization is palpable, from the top down.
“Well, [having J.J. back] means everything,” said owner Bob McNair, the man on the hook for Watt’s $100 million contract. “We just have to let him work his way back in. He doesn’t need a lot of work on the field. He knows what to do. He should be 100 percent, and we want to make sure that he is and he’s ready to go at the start of the season.”
“It’s great to have [J.J.] back,” exclaimed head coach Bill O’Brien. “He’s a great player, one of the top players in our league, top defensive player in our league, so to have him back, it means a lot to our football team.”
The Texans’ defense managed to do more than just get by last season without Watt, as they finished first in the league in yards allowed. In other words, sans Watt, they still had a stellar defense. However, with no Watt, the Texans were anemic in turnover margin (tied for 26th) and at sacking the quarterback (tied for 25th). Those are statistical areas directly tied to the presence of Watt.
In 2014 and 2015 the Texans were 9-7 with Watt as their dynamic headliner. In 2016 they were 9-7 with the fundamentally sound and visually scary Clowney as the headliner. So now, with both players fully healthy, how good can this defense be? When you ask Watt the question, he defers to the potential of the entire defense as a unit.
“I think it’s special for all of us,” said Watt. “You got some phenomenal pass-rushing ability out there — I mean, you’ve got Jadeveon, you’ve got Whitney (Mercilus) — it’s going to be great. Just to see the talent that we have and the ability to put it on the field at the same time and to come from different angles, it’s going to be really special.”
When you ask Clowney about the potential of his tag team with Watt, he similarly deflects the conversation to Watt and the rest of the unit. “It’s great. Like I said, with [J.J.] out there, it’s always going to be good, not just for me but for everybody around him, for the defense as a whole,” he said. “He’s a great player. He’s going to be noticed. Other teams are going to have to game plan for him, and us knowing that will help us a lot. So, we got a lot of good guys across the front and with him out there, it just makes it a lot easier for everybody to make a lot of plays.”
The players can defer and deflect all they want; the fact is that, if Watt and Clowney remain fully healthy, Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel is sitting on a football nuclear bomb, and he will be smashing the red button like a hammer into a nail every Sunday. If teams choose to double-team Watt, someone has to single-block Clowney. If they double-team Clowney, then Watt devours the poor sap in front of him. If they somehow send multiple guys at both Clowney and Watt, then may God have mercy on the quarterback’s soul.
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“It’s all a big chess game. That’s all it is at the end of the day,” said Watt. “They’re trying to stop us; we’re trying to stop them. It’s just a really, really physical chess game, and I think that’s what makes it so fun. People say football’s just a bunch of guys ramming their heads into each other, but there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. There’s a whole bunch of mind games going on. It’s a fun game. It’s a blast. I love it.”
With Watson still the backup quarterback and probably at least a year or two away from putting the Texans into the mix of the NFL’s quarterback arms race, the Texans will try to improve on their 9-7 record and make a deep playoff run their own way — by destroying the other team’s quarterback. It’s worked before for other teams, most recently with the Denver Broncos in 2015, a team coached, ironically, by the man O’Brien replaced in 2014, Gary Kubiak.
With seven former first-round picks on the defensive side of the ball, it’s not just the selection of Clowney with the first overall pick in 2014 that has set the tone and charted the cultural course for this Texans franchise. With all that defensive talent, they are built to win low-scoring bloodbaths. With the paths of Clowney and Watt at full power finally crossing, the vision of Draft Night 2014 is realized.
“It’s scary how many dogs we got on this defense, man,” said linebacker Sio Moore. “And when you get all them dogs going in the same direction after one bone…scary.”