By Jason Keidel
It’s rare that the football world gasps over midweek injury report in September. Especially when that player is a defensive lineman, who toils in the meat-pile anonymity of the trenches.
But J.J. Watt is a rare football player.
Watt, widely regarded as the NFL’s best defensive player, had surgery on his back yesterday, and will be out for the rest of the season. And considering the violent nature of pro football, his rabid pass-rushing style and the precarious nature of back injuries, some wonder if Watt will ever return, at least to his all-world form.
The Houston Texans must soldier on sans their best player, team leader and first-team All-Pro. A player can’t be more decorated than J.J. Watt. And his absence raises another question: Is J.J. Watt a Hall of Fame football player?
Most would agree he is in terms of talent. Actually, anyone would. You can’t do better than be the best at your position and your side of the ball virtually every snap you play.
Since Watt will essentially miss this, his sixth year, let’s consider his first five. In the four years after his rookie season, he has been first-team All-Pro and won Defensive Player of the Year three times. He has registered 69 sacks, for an average of 17.25 per season, easily the most in the NFL over that period. Prorate that over another three years, and he’s a can’t-miss for Canton.
Watt is only 27 years old, way too young to toss the dirt over his career. But back injuries have truncated too many careers of otherwise tough and talented athletes to ignore. Larry Bird comes to mind, as does Don Mattingly. And they played sports that don’t require the Herculean strength and effort that defensive linemen exert.
Some fans were suffering from Watt fatigue, which is understandable. His face was splashed across all manner of media, his visage burned into everything but a postage stamp. It felt like Watt won everything except this year’s presidential election. Folks were hearing how great he was, yet there were no tangible team results on the gridiron. The sense is that he can tilt the stat sheet, but not the standings.
That’s a bit myopic. Cynics assert that no defensive player is worth the $100 million deal he got from Houston. That’s QB money for someone who never touches the ball (at least not by design).
But what is J.J. Watt worth? How do you quantify someone who requires double — and sometimes triple — teams every snap? Ask any coach, player or pundit worth their salt, and they will say football games are won and lost on the line of scrimmage, and no one dominates it more profoundly than Watt.
Also consider that only Lawrence Taylor has been named Defensive Player of the Year as often as Watt. And he’s widely considered the best linebacker in NFL history, if not the best defensive player.
Watt is 12th on the list of active sack leaders, yet everyone in front of him began their NFL careers in 2006 or earlier. Only one player is in Watt’s orbit since 2011, his rookie season — Von Miller, who has 11 fewer sacks (65 to Watt’s 76).
Tackles aren’t a fair measurement, as the top-20 tacklers in the sport are exclusively linebackers and safeties. But among Watt’s peers (defensive linemen) only Khalil Mack had more tackles in 2015. And even then, Mack (77) had just one more tackle than Watt (76).
It’s nearly impossible to issue a gold jacket to someone for five years of production. The only player who comes to mind is Gale Sayers, who, like Watt, had five sublime seasons. But there are obvious, tangible metrics we can apply to running backs.
However there’s also the eye test, and the singular standard we often apply. Was Watt by far the best player at his position? Yes. Was he by far the best player on his side of the ball? Yes. Was he the best long enough to warrant a ticket to Canton? Probably not.
Let’s hope it’s not a question we have to answer today, as Watt begins his long recovery from back surgery. Let’s hope his megawatt game doesn’t dim into diminished play, or retirement. Let’s hope he answers the question with several more sublime seasons.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.