What will history make of JJ Watt?


JJ Watt’s best days are clearly behind him. The question now centers on how many more days he’s got left.

JJ Watt’s best days are clearly behind him. The question now centers on how many more days he’s got left.
Photo: Getty Images

“JJ Watt is out with what looks to be a season-ending injury.”

The annual refrain sees the light of day yet again as the Arizona Cardinals defensive end will reportedly undergo surgery after dislocating his shoulder in Sunday’s victory against the Houston Texans and playing through it. With Halloween coming up this weekend, it might be timely to make a Frankenstein joke about the amount of surgeries this guy has had to go through in the past five seasons, from a groin hernia in 2015 to a herniated disc in 2016 to a leg fracture in 2017 to a torn pectoral in 2019 to… yeah, you get the idea.

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As Watt exits his 11th year in the NFL having played only one full season since 2015, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year still doesn’t have that Super Bowl win under his belt. This Cardinals team, undefeated and playing their most important game of the season so far tonight, might be his best shot. And Watt’s role on this Cards team hasn’t been what it was with the Texans — but it might be his saving grace as he gets relegated to the sidelines.

Last year, Sportscasting reported that Watt could have been on record to break the NFL record for sacks, had he stayed healthy throughout his entire career based on his average per game during his time with the Houston Texans. He tied himself for seventh place in most sacks in a single season in 2012 and 2014, with 20.5, but that “could have been” has become Watt’s career-defining phrase. Injuries have a way of taking a mental toll as well as a physical one, and while I don’t want to speculate too heavily, it does seem that Watt’s days in the NFL are numbered.

This season with the Cardinals, though, he’s only recorded one sack and 16 tackles throughout seven games — far below his usual average. The fact that he played through his shoulder injury on Sunday is reflective of Watt’s insane work ethic and competitive drive as a whole — traits that are quickly turning him into the story of “what could have been.” However, since his role on the Cardinals defense — which Pro Football Focus ranked as the second-best defense in the league — has taken on the shape of experienced leadership on the field rather than a fourth DPOY campaign, Watt may still be able to affect this side of the ball despite not seeing playing time.

While he’s used to leading the defensive line from the field, the Cardinals would not be remiss to hand him a headset and give him a shot at running things from the sideline. I’m not suggesting they hire him on as a coach and relinquish defensive line coach Brentson Buckner’s job to Watt, but he still could have a lot to offer, if he so chose, even during his time rehabbing. As one of the most experienced players on the team, Watt’s impact isn’t limited to TFL stats. We have yet to see how the team will fare without him directing traffic on the field, and the Green Bay game likely isn’t the matchup that anyone would have chosen to figure that out, but there will definitely be some questions that get answered tonight in Phoenix.

Watt is past the average NFL retirement age and into the legacy-building stage of his career. He played five seasons with perfect health in the league that have allowed him to build up quite the stats resume. Whether his legacy will include a ring or not is yet to be seen, as is the direction of the collective memory of Watt’s impact on the Texans and the NFL — no doubt a future HOFer, will he be remembered as an all-time defensive player or as the great who never quite was?

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