J.J. Watt’s start to his second season with the Houston Texans has been a tour de force.
Consider: Watt leads the NFL with 9.5 sacks, has 16 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hits. His 10 passes defensed, which have come on batted balls at the line of scrimmage, are five more than any other defensive linemen, and just three off the NFL lead, amazing when you consider he plays defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, traditionally not a statistics-heavy position.
So, J.J., is there anything you can’t do?
“You’ll never catch me singing or dancing,” he said Wednesday on a conference call with Western New York reporters.
That’s about the only thing the second-year pro out of Wisconsin hasn’t done for the 6-1 Texans, who through the first eight weeks of the season are the class of the AFC.
The play of this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy is a huge reason why.
“He’s played very well. You could see this coming, I think, in the playoffs last year. The two playoff games he was exceptional,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “I think this all started at the end of last year and has continued, and the guys around him have played well. [Defensive coordinator] Wade [Phillips] does a great job of getting him in position to be successful. We’re very proud of his effort, and obviously, he’s becoming a hell of a player.”
Praise for Watt has come from all NFL corners this year, so much so that he’s being mentioned as a candidate not just for defensive player of the year, but league MVP.
“He doesn’t play just your normal way that defensive linemen sometimes play,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “He’ll jump around, block, but then he’s quick enough to go close his gap off. He’s good enough and strong enough to close it down the traditional way. He’s a dynamic football player. He really is. He’s high energy, don’t get me wrong, but he’s a very unique player in the way he plays the game.”
Watt’s ability to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage is uncanny. The first real sign of that skill came in last season’s wild card playoff win against the Cincinnati Bengals. Watt didn’t just bat the ball down, but rather snagged Andy Dalton’s pass at the line of scrimmage and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown that broke a 10-all tie and sent the Texans on to a 31-10 win.
“I think a lot of its instinct,” Watt said. “It’s a lot of practice over the years and getting good at it, and kind of developing the instinct. It started at Wisconsin with [defensive line] coach Charlie Partridge. We started working on it there, and obviously now here in the NFL I’ve been working on it a lot. It’s just something that, I know when I’m not going to get a sack, I want to find some other way to affect the play, and that’s a way that I can do it.”
It helps that Watt’s got a 37-inch vertical leap. Not bad for someone who’s 6-foot-5 and 295 pounds.
So, J.J., can you dunk?
Had Watt not chosen to play football, he might have been chasing a Stanley Cup. He was a decorated youth hockey player, even traveling to Germany with a team of elite players hand picked from throughout the country.
So, J.J., it sounds like you were pretty good, right?
“I wasn’t bad. ... I was the MVP of that tournament, the leading goal scorer.”
“Hockey is up there right near football as one of my major loves,” he said. “When I’m done playing football some day, I’m definitely going to be in an old man’s league.”
Watt hasn’t laced up the skates since he was 13 years old, right around the time it got hard to find a pair that fit him.
“I had to buy new skates every year and it got to the point where I got so big, that I had to start to get custom skates and that got really expensive,” Watt said.
The financial burden got to be too much to bear for the Watts, who raised three boys – J.J., D.J. and T.J. – in Pewaukee, Wis. (population: 13,224 as of 2011).
“Now that I understand the financials and all those types of things, I understand how much it costs, I’m so thankful and grateful they [Watt’s parents] let me play as long as I did,” he said. “... The feeling of the puck hitting the back of the net is very similar to the feeling of getting a sack or scoring a touchdown.”
While Watt has made the game look easy this season, he’s also dealt with adversity. He left Central Michigan after the 2007 season and was working a pizza delivery job before returning to his home state and walking on at Wisconsin.
He transformed himself into a second-team All-American and the Badgers’ MVP in the 2010 season before being drafted 11th overall by the Texans.
Don’t think for a second that Watt is getting comfortable, though.
“I understand what it took to get on the cover of SI and I also understand what it’s going to take to stay at this level and keep playing this way and our team to keep playing this way,” he said. “It’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ league. They can love you one minute and hate you the next. You just got to keep playing, keep doing what you do. I was brought up to work hard. Hard work is always going to be the basis of everything I do.”