Rich Lord: Could 2018 Be J.J. Watt’s Last Season In Houston?

It’s not as far-fetched as some might think.

The Triple Threat
April 10, 2018 - 4:01 pm
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The question posed in the headline of this post is one that we’ve had under consideration for some time. It is, of course, borderline blasphemy for most fans of Watt and the Texans to even consider this possibility, but it’s not as far-fetched as some might think.  As a matter of fact, a post by former NFL Executive of the Year, Jeff Diamond, on sportingnews.com has resurrected the conversation. 

Watt is one-of-a-kind in many ways. His first five years in the NFL included three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Unprecedented. Seasons two through five he averaged 17 sacks per season. Unprecedented. During that time, the Texans claimed three AFC South titles. Unprecedented (at least for the Texans). Off the field, his charitable efforts have been well-documented. Most notably, the still mind-boggling $37 million he raised for victims of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Absolutely unprecedented. To say that he is the most popular and most revered athlete in Houston pro sports history is a given. And yes, I write that with Hakeem Olajuwon, Nolan Ryan and Earl Campbell in mind. Watt is bigger than all of them in Houston, so emotions do play a part in this conversation.

However, the NFL is still a business and lately, business has not been good for J.J. Watt. He has ended each of his last three seasons with an injury that’s caused him to shut it down; he was forced out of a playoff game in 2015 with a groin injury and later required surgery to repair a sports hernia (he underwent back surgery that same off-season); after just three games in 2016, he required another back surgery that ended his season; last year he played in five games before suffering a broken leg that required surgery and spelled yet another premature end to his season.

Watt has a legendary work ethic. He’s acknowledged that some of his extreme workouts may have pushed his body a bit too far and contributed to his run of bad luck with injuries. He’s promised to dial it back, but it’s reasonable to wonder if damage has been done to the point that he may never be the player he once was. His injuries were severe. If he is indeed now a player on the downside of his career at age 29, being under contract for four more years and still due to be paid $57 million over that span may not be deemed good business for the Texans. As with most teams, the Texans have some big financial decisions to make with a few other players that might be easier to make if the commitment to Watt was reduced through a restructuring of his deal or eliminated through a trade. 

The Texans have a lot of talent on defense, but contract decisions loom in the very near future for Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Tyrann Mathieu, among others. If Watt is able to play a full season in 2018 but is unable to be the dominant force he’s been for most of his career, the Texans could be looking at perhaps the toughest decision they’ve ever made.

The options are pretty clear. If Watt shows himself to be a descending player this year, the team could ask him to take a pay cut and restructure his deal. It gets dicey if he declines to do so. Given the aforementioned players likely to get new and bigger contracts, the Texans would then have to consider cutting or trading Watt, which would save them $13 million against the salary cap in 2019 alone. That would not go over well with a fan base as blindly loyal to him as any athlete ever, but there’s a new sheriff in Houston. Brian Gaine has taken over for longtime General Manger Rick Smith and may be less inclined to accommodate Watt. It’s also possible that a decision on a player as transcendent as Watt could be an ownership decision. Like most Houston sports fans, Bob McNair loves him some J.J. Watt, but he’s also running a business.

The reason it makes sense to have this conversation now is that the odds are that Watt will be unable to replicate what he did in his first five years in the NFL and the Texans need to prepare for that scenario and all it’s ramifications. It’s possible that Watt could make that decision for the Texans. When asked a few years ago how long he planned to play in the NFL, he made it clear that he has no interest in hanging around and playing out his twilight years if he’s no longer the player he wants to be. Under that scenario, as hard as it might be for fans to admit, the Texans might be better off without J. J. Watt. 

Nolan Ryan made his way to Arlington. Earl Campbell retired in New Orleans. Hakeem Olajuwon wound up in Toronto. The 2018 NFL season should go a long way toward determining whether or not an athlete that has surpassed all of them in the minds of Houston sports fans, takes a similar route into the sunset.​​

 

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