Thursday, October 23, 2014

J.J. Watt — Greatest Defensive Player Of All-Time?


Only Greatness Will Do For J.J. Watt

Coaches, teammates agree: Dominance is main motivation for Texans All-Pro


HOUSTON -- He walks in, the best defensive football player on the planet, and takes a seat in a small media workroom inside NRG Stadium.

J.J. Watt is wearing Houston Texans gear and white sneakers with "Mega Watt" scribbled in red on the back. He puts his iPhone, sans a case, in his lap, clasps his massive hands together, looks at the floor and then raises his head, his icy blue eyes ablaze, his chiseled face expressionless.

"I owe you a huge apology," I say, taking a seat an arm's length away from him. "I'm very sorry."

Watt didn't ask for an explanation.

"That's all right," he says.

'No, it isn't.'

Watt and I had never sat down for a one-on-one interview before last week. We spoke once by phone midway through his second year in the NFL, in 2012. By that time, Watt had convinced his defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, that he could take calculated risks on the football field because he had the talent, the work ethic and the drive to make them work. And Phillips had figured out that not only did Watt see the field better than any defender he had ever coached, but Watt played the defensive end position better than anyone, too.

The end of the 2011 regular season had been Watt's coming-out party, and the playoffs were his confirmation. His 2012 season ranks among the greatest ever by a defensive player: 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed, a team-high 107 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 42 quarterback hits, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.

"He had the best year anybody's ever had," said Phillips, who during 37 seasons in the NFL coached Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Demarcus Ware in their primes. "You put in tackles, assists, tackles for loss, hits on the quarterback, knockdowns and sacks, he had everything."

Only one of the 50 media members who voted for the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award didn't vote for Watt.
Me.


Two weeks later, Houston was trailing Buffalo 10-7 in the third quarter. The Bills were facing third-and-3 from the Texans' 12-yard line. Houston blitzed, and Watt jumped in front of an EJ Manuel pass, batted and intercepted the ball and ran 80 yards untouched into the end zone. Touchdown. The Texans won 23-17.

Then in Week 6, after spotting Indianapolis a 24-0 first-quarter lead, the Texans trailed 33-21 early in the fourth quarter. With the Colts facing third-and 12 from the Houston 45, Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck fumbled the snap. Watt tried to fall on the football, but it bounced off his leg. Then he rolled over, untouched, picked it up and ran 45 yards into the end zone. Touchdown. The score pulled the Texans within a touchdown, but they lost 33-28.

"People are always like, 'Does it amaze you what he does?'" wide receiver Andre Johnson said. "I always tell them, 'No,' because you see some of the stuff he does in practice."

Said offensive tackle Duane Brown, "He gets his hands up all the time in practice to bat balls down. But the interception against Buffalo, and then to have the speed; they have some fast players on their offense, and nobody was close to catching him."

Phillips had seen it before. It was Watt's rookie year. The Texans were playing host to Cincinnati in a wild-card game. Late in the first half with the score tied, Cincinnati was at its own 34-yard line.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton looked for A.J. Green but found Watt's hands instead. Interception. Touchdown. The Texans earned their first playoff victory in franchise history 31-10.

While watching the coaches' tape of the play on a computer screen, Phillips said: "See how close he is to the quarterback? That's the same thing he did against Buffalo. He jumps up and catches it. I mean receivers can't do that. The game was over after that."

"That was one of the best moments of my life," Watt said. "I think that's kind of when whatever I am now, whatever this crazy situation that I'm in now is, I think that's really the play that started it all."
This crazy situation is Watt's escalating fame. In the pantheon of Houston sports, his popularity is approaching that of Hakeem Olajuwon, Earl Campbell and Nolan Ryan.

Watt is in commercials. Fans knock on the door of his suburban Houston home. He can't go to the grocery store. He has to sneak in the back doors of restaurants to avoid being mobbed. Women routinely propose marriage.

"His popularity is soaring," longtime Houston Chronicle sportswriter John McClain said. "I'm one of the few who's been here for all of it, and his is getting close to theirs."

Before this season, Watt signed a six-year contract extension that included $51.8 million guaranteed, the most for a defensive player in NFL history.

People always ask, 'Man, why don't you come out and enjoy it? Why don't you celebrate?' ... Anybody can go to the club. You don't have to be good at going to the club to go to the club. You have to be good to be playing on Sundays.” — J.J. Watt

There is no hint of jealousy inside the Texans' locker room over Watt's salary, success or celebrity. Part of the reason is Watt's singular focus on football. He practically lives at the facility. He pores over film. He practices with the same intensity with which he plays.

Watt does not go out in Houston after wins. He doesn't party. Last year, Johnson coaxed him to a New Year's Eve bash he was throwing, and Watt was overrun by people wanting to take pictures with him.

"It got a little bit out of control," said Johnson, a star in his own right. "But it comes with the territory when you've done what he's done. You're watching football games on TV, and he's just about on every commercial. His face is out there. But that's a tribute to him and what he's done. He works his butt off, so he deserves everything."

There will be time for parties and bars, for dating and spending money and not monitoring every ounce of food and beverage he puts in his body -- later. Watt is about the now.
"You only get so many years to play this game, and success is so much fun, but it's so hard," Watt said. "It's so difficult to get that you have to devote every single thing that you have to it, and that means making tons and tons of sacrifices.

"Everybody talks about how badly they want to be great, but are you really willing at the end of the day to make all the sacrifices that you have to? I think so far I've been willing to make those, so that's why I've been successful, and I'm going to continue to because I love the feeling of success."
Watt paused.

"A sack is way better than any nightclub," he said. "A touchdown is way better than any bar experience I've ever had. I live for Sundays. I live for Mondays. I live for Thursdays.
"People always ask, 'Man, why don't you come out and enjoy it? Why don't you celebrate? Why don't you have any fun?' My fun is Sundays. Anybody can go to the club. You don't have to be good at going to the club to go to the club. You have to be good to be playing on Sundays, and to me, that's what's cool."

J.J Watt
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports
What can't Watt do? After making his first career TD catch against Oakland, the list is a short one.

Before fame and riches, Watt was a walk-on at Wisconsin who helped paint Camp Randall Stadium for spare change.

"One day I came in the office and he's painting doorways," said Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez. "He might be scraping paint. Whatever they had him do, that was his summer job."
After his freshman year at Central Michigan, Watt, a native of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, decided he wanted to transfer to Wisconsin. Then-coach Bret Bielema, now at Arkansas, met Watt and his parents. Watt's father, John, told Bielema, "My son is very special."

"I get it," Bielema said.

"No, you don't," John replied. "He's going to be one of the best to ever play the game."

Bielema welcomed Watt as a walk-on, and before long, Watt asked what a player had to do to earn a scholarship. Bielema told him: Become a starter or play significant snaps as a backup.

"I'll have a scholarship by the end of the spring," Watt told Bielema.

"And he did," Bielema said.

Watt has four sacks, 20 QB hurries, an interception, six passes defensed
and two forced fumbles in 2014. For good measure, he also
blocked an extra point. Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Watt played so well in 26 games for the Badgers from 2009 to 2010 that he declared for the NFL draft after his junior season. Watt wasn't Houston's first choice. The Texans wanted Missouri's Aldon Smith, but San Francisco drafted Smith seventh overall. In the Texans' draft room, there was discussion over whom to pick. Phillips lobbied for Watt, and Houston selected him 11th overall.

"I think some people didn't give J.J. as much credit for the talent he has," Phillips said. "Have you ever seen the box jump that he does? Take a look at it on YouTube. You can't believe how high he can jump and how much explosion he has to do that. He can run fast. He was 290 pounds. He's a really great athlete for his size. I don't think people gave him enough credit there. I think they realize it now."

Watt's image is carefully manicured but genuine. He said he's still just Connie and John Watt's son, Derek and T.J. Watt's brother, and a small-town kid from Wisconsin who just happens to be a multimillionaire.

Watt said his largest extravagance was buying his mom a Range Rover last month.
The inconvenience of drawing a crowd wherever he goes, be it a high school football game, a smoothie shop or a restaurant, is one Watt happily will live with.

"It's what you dream about as a kid," Watt said. "You dream about being that player that everybody sees. You're on commercials. You're scoring touchdowns. You're making plays. You're going to the stadium and people scream for you. You try to go to dinner and you can't because people want your picture and autograph. It's unbelievable. It's crazy.

"So I just stay at my house, and I come to work and that's it. Some people are like, 'Man, don't you get upset? Isn't it kind of a hassle that everybody wants to take your picture?' I say, 'When they stop, that means I'm not playing well. As long as they want to, that means I'm playing well, so I'll take it.'"

Watt won't say it, but he'd undoubtedly also take winning the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. Only two defensive players have done so: Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971 and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After what he's accomplished through six games, Watt is in the MVP discussion. "Wherever people want to put me in terms of voting for awards, at the end of the day that's their opinion," Watt said. "All I can do is go out there and put the best possible player on the football field, and then if they vote for me, they vote for me. If they don't, they don't. I can't control how they vote. You know that."
Yes, I do. All too well. — Ashley Fox | ESPN
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