It might be time to cancel the AFC South: J.J. Watt has reinjured his back, and the Texans are reportedly planning to place him on injured reserve. After an array of offseason surgeries, including an operation to repair a herniated disk in late July, Watt’s health was a serious question mark entering the season, and though he managed to make it back for Week 1, the threat of a setback was always a possibility.
Still, it’s crushing news for the 2–1 Texans, who despite laying an egg in Foxborough last week remained clear division favorites. If Houston fans want to start a weekly support group, let me know; I’ll bring the guacamole.
We need to talk about Houston’s playoff chances, which obviously take a hit. But let’s start with the big-picture take away: This fucking sucks. Watt has been the best defensive player in football these past few years, causing an unprecedented level of destruction. Only two players in NFL history have earned three Defensive Player of the Year Awards: Their names are Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt — and Watt managed the feat in five seasons.
No one has been more dominant than Watt relative to the players at his respective position, and it isn’t close. Since Watt entered the league in 2011, he’s owned every major statistical category for defensive linemen. He’s amassed 23 more sacks than anyone else. He’s totaled 213 quarterback hits, soaring past Carlos Dunlap, who is second with 132. Watt has registered 133 tackles for loss, nearly double Michael Bennett’s 76. When healthy, Watt is the most devastating offense-wrecking force alive.
And so for line-play nerds like me, a serious Watt injury is about the worst on-field football news possible. Watching Watt unleash some fresh hell was often my favorite thing on a Sunday. Him going down after three injury-riddled games is like my favorite band releasing three singles recorded with a snapped guitar neck and a ripped bass drum, then scrapping the rest of the album.
Of course, it’s as bad for the Texans as it is for Watt’s admirers. This injury robs Houston of both its most valuable and most versatile defensive piece. Coordinator Romeo Crennel deploys Watt in ways that make the defensive end the centerpiece of Houston’s entire unit. Watt had been spending a lot of time on the edge this year — likely to keep him and his injured back from dealing with the big bodies and double-teams that come inside — but ideally, his ability to play all over the defensive line would allow the Texans to assemble a collection of pass-rush lineups that accentuate the skills of every player in their front four. The options they have to replace him — Christian Covington, Devon Still, and the recently signed Antonio Smith — are all better suited for traditional 3–4 end roles and snaps on the inside.
Now, there will be a trickle-down effect that weakens the entire front seven. Absent Watt, the looks that might involve outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus standing up over a guard or end Jadeveon Clowney lining up as a 3-technique tackle might have to be scrapped as the Texans settle into a more traditional approach defensively. With Covington, Smith, and Still seeing the field more, Mercilus, Clowney, and linebacker John Simon will likely all be asked to play more snaps on the outside, and that means far fewer surprises and far less punch for a pass rush that should have been this team’s best weapon. And those concerns don’t even account for the effect on Houston’s run defense, which was already giving up an average of 4.8 yards per carry with (an albeit injured) Watt.
While it’s impossible to overstate how much Watt means to the Texans, there’s solace to be found in how Houston has played in stretches this year without him being 100 percent. This defense is loaded with talent, and even if the pass rush stumbles a bit, the secondary is capable enough to pick up some of the slack.
Without Watt, this group could still be a top-10 unit, but even that might not be enough: The offense is already struggling under new quarterback Brock Osweiler, and Houston’s 2016 hopes seemed to hinge on fielding one of the very best defenses in football. The question now becomes whether the rest of the AFC South is so hapless that a Watt-less Houston is still the best team in the division. It might be, but the gap between Houston and Indianapolis is clearly smaller now (yes, even though the Colts needed a Week 3 miracle to beat a Chargers team that’s one chandelier falling on Philip Rivers away from finishing the worst run of injury luck ever).
With new NFL rules allowing one player per team to return from IR after eight weeks, it’s possible that Watt could still make his way back if Houston is in the playoff mix. As much as I’ll miss watching him play, though, I hope both he and the Texans practice some restraint with his rehab. Watt may barely be human, but trying to play seven weeks after back surgery was always a massive risk, and now he’s paying the price. At this point, the focus has to be on more than just this season. Back problems can be career-threatening for linemen on either side of the ball, and losing one season is a better fate than losing the best version of Watt for the rest of his career.
Watt’s return is a decision for another time, though. For now, the Texans defense will fight to keep Houston’s postseason chances intact without its undisputed star, and NFL fans everywhere will spend this season looking for the game’s new — if temporary — defensive king. All we can hope is that when Watt does return, he’s the Watt we know. Football is just better that way.