“There comes a time where every good thing comes to an end.”
That’s what happened between J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans this offseason, and although those weren’t Watt’s words, he admits they are true.
Watt and the Cardinals (6-0) meet the Texans (1-5) on Sunday at State Farm Stadium. It will be the veteran defensive end’s first encounter with his former team since he asked for and received his release from the franchise in February. He looks at it as a bittersweet moment, not some sort of payback.
“There’s obviously something more to it,” Watt said, quickly adding, “I don’t think it’s what people may think it is, because you look at the roster and you look at the guys who are there, it’s been so massively turned over that there’s only a handful of guys that are even there from last year that I played with.
“It’s not the same team, it’s not the same organization that I remember and that I was a part of.”
In truth, the Texans are a shell of their former selves. A 2002 expansion franchise, Houston became a contender when it landed Watt with the 11th overall pick out of Wisconsin in 2011. They won the first of six AFC South Division titles his rookie season. Watt would win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors three times and earn five first-team All-Pro and five Pro Bowl selections.
Things, however, started heading south under Bill O’Brien, the team’s former head coach and general manager. Players became disenchanted and wanted out. Star players, like current Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, ended up being traded without their consent. Others, such as disgruntled quarterback Deshaun Watson, demanded to be traded. Watson’s request is expected to finally be facilitated soon, with the Dolphins, Panthers and Eagles as potential landing destinations.
Watt, meanwhile, was able to sit down with management cordially and orchestrate his own departure, making him a free agent and able to sign anywhere he wanted.
“I signed here because I saw great potential in the team as it was, and after I signed we continued to add guys like A.J. Green, like Rodney Hudson,” Watt said. “Now the owner is making moves for guys like Zach Ertz. This organization has shown that they’re willing to do what’s necessary to go out and compete for a championship and that’s why I’m here.
“I love being here. I love the atmosphere of this team. I love the way everybody works, the businesslike mindset where you just come in, go about your business, you don’t make excuses, you don’t complain, you just work and win. I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’re successful. Obviously, there’s a massive amount of talent already existing and that we brought in, but I think it’s more of the attitude and the culture that’s been built here.”
It used to be that way in Houston, where Watt quickly became a legend and a hero to the people, not only because of his exploits on the football field but his countless charitable work throughout the entire city and state, such as raising $37 million in relief efforts from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
But just like Green, who spent 9 seasons in Cincinnati as the face of the Bengals before coming to Arizona, it was time for Watt, after 10 years with the Texans as the man in Houston, to move on.
“I love the organization of the Cincinnati Bengals. I became A.J. Green there,” Green said. “That will never be taken away from me. … But there comes a time where every good thing comes to an end — on both parts. Me leaving where they can grow younger receivers and for me leaving to where I can have a change of scenery and revive my career somewhere different.”
They are both doing exactly that in Arizona on the NFL’s hottest team. Watt, despite not registering his first official sack of the season until last Sunday’s 37-14 rout of the Browns, has been dominating both on the field and behind the scenes as a leader and inspirational motivator.
“He’s getting better and better each week,” said Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, noting Watt’s disruption with nine quarterback hits, four tackles for loss, two tipped passes and a forced fumble.
Watt agrees with Green’s philosophy that all good things must eventually come to an end, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t cherish his memories and moments in Houston.
“Yeah, there’s memories, there’s history, there’s so much,” he said. “There’s relationships, there’s everything that was built there and there’s such a massive amount of love and respect for the city and the fans and for everybody that was involved in making the memories that happened there.
“But at the same time, sometimes things happen, and a new opportunity has to arise and I’m very thankful and happy for where I am right now.”
Watt, 32, met his wife, U.S. Olympic and professional soccer player Kealia Ohai, in Houston. He built thousands of friendships there with families, small businesses, local leaders and fans. It was all due to the success he had during his tenure with the Texans.
“I was there for the best moments the organization has ever had, doing things that the place had never done before,” he said. “I know how unbelievable the fanbase is, so that’s why it hurts me to see where it is now because I believe those fans deserve to be living those high times and to be experiencing those great moments.
“It hurts to know that they’re not and to know that they’re struggling. I hope that they get back there at some point and I hope they get to do that because I know first-hand it’s an unbelievable place to play when you’re rolling.”
The Cardinals couldn’t be rolling much higher than they are at the moment, although Watt suggests they still haven’t played their best football yet. Considering he’s only under contract for two years and others, such as Green, Ertz and pass rusher Chandler Jones are set to hit free agency in 2022, doesn’t he want to see GM Steve Keim find a way to lock down the group for a multi-year run at the championship?
“I care about one year and one week only, that’s it,” Watt said. “I truly feel that’s how this team feels. That’s why we are where we are.”
Where Watt eventually ends up — outside of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, of course — is anyone’s guess. He owns homes in his native Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Houston and the Valley with his wife. They also have a place in Chicago, where Kealia plays for the Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League. And they have family in Utah, from where Kealia hails.
“Wherever our feet are, that’s where our home is,” Watt said. “It’s all right by us.”
As for all that team-issued swag and gear he’s accumulated over the years from the Texans, what did Watt decided to do with it now that’s assembling himself and his family in Cardinals’ red?
“It’s 10 years of my life,” Watt said. “It’s not like I just chucked all my Houston stuff. Over 10 years I’ve gathered probably thousands of pieces of clothing. I think half of Pewaukee, Wisconsin is dressed in team-issued, Houston Texans gear, though. Everybody’s got a little bit of it.”
The Cardinals on Saturday elevated DL Josh Mauro to the active roster from the practice squad as a standard elevation. They also elevated OL Danny Isidora, TE Ross Travis and LB Joe Walker to the active roster from the practice squad as COVID-19 replacements.
Watt’s Houston chronicle
Superlatives from J.J. Watt’s 10 years with the Houston Texans:
—Five-time first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.
—Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
—2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
—In 128 career games, he registered 531 tackles, 172 tackles for loss, 101 sacks, 282 quarterback hits, 25 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries and 61 passes defensed.
—Led NFL in sacks with 20½ in 2012 and 17½ in 2015, and finished second with 20½ in 2014 and 16.0 in 2018.
—His 31 career multi-sack games are most among active players.
—Has at least a partial sack of 41 different quarterbacks, a list that includes 20 Pro Bowl performers, six first-team All-Pros, five NFL MVPs, six Heisman Trophy winners and seven Super Bowl winners.
—Played 1,016 total snaps in 2020, which led all NFL defensive linemen. He played 1,000 or more snaps in a season six times.
—Became just the fourth player in NFL history to record at least 100 sacks in his first 120 games, joining Reggie White, Bruce Smith and DeMarcus Ware.
—His six AFC Defensive Player of the Month awards are tied for the most by any defensive player (Smith) in NFL history while his seven AFC Defensive Player of the Week awards are tied for the most among any active player in the league (Aaron Donald).
—Has scored seven career touchdowns: three receiving TDs, three interception returns for a score and a fumble recovery.
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