HOUSTON -- In past offseasons, J.J. Watt has said he didn't know how much longer he would continue to play, acknowledging that the injuries that he has dealt with made him think about life after football.
But now, coming off a stellar 2018 and in his first healthy offseason since 2015, the Houston Texans defensive end made it clear that doesn’t have any desire to be anywhere but the football field for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t want to leave the game any time soon,” Watt said. “I love it. Hopefully, we can say that I had two less years of pounding on my body, I had two less years of wear and tear, so that means two more years on the back end.”
“I feel good right now. I’m excited about the season ahead. I’m excited about the team that we’ve got and the guys that we’ve got. I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I get to go around and chase a ball for a living and they pay me to do it. I couldn’t be any luckier.”
That Watt feels “good” right now is a huge difference than how he felt at the start of the Texans’ offseason program the past two years. In 2017, Watt was coming off major back surgery. In 2018, he was still rehabbing from shattering his leg in Week 5. This year, Watt was able to spend the first part of the offseason just working on improving his game instead of having to work his way back from a serious injury.
“I get to spend a lot less time in the training room,” Watt said. “I get to just work on my craft, work in the weight room and not have to worry as much, I would say. The last two years, you’re just trying to get back, hoping to be able to play and hoping that you can play at a decent level, whereas this year you get to actually focus on improving and getting better and not trying to come back from a traumatic injury.”
According to Texans coach Bill O’Brien, even though Watt hasn’t had to be in Houston to be in the training room all offseason, he has still been at the facility “four to five times a week … working out [and] being with the guys.”
“It’s great for our team,” O’Brien said. “This is a guy that you might think that maybe the odds are against him a little bit going into last year based on coming off the injuries that he’d been coming off of. He showed up and had an unbelievable season. You know, the thing that’s great about him is he’s in there every day. … We’ve had a bunch of guys in our building just getting things done, and he’s right in there leading the way.”
In his first full season in two years, Watt had 16 sacks, 25 quarterback hits and 18 tackles for loss. His sacks total ranked second in the NFL to Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald and Watt was tied for first in the league with seven forced fumbles.
But it’s not just his production that makes Watt so valuable to Houston, general manager Brian Gaine said. Watt is the face of this Texans team and an important figure in the locker room.
“J.J. [Watt]’s a leader,” Gaine said. “Just having his leadership here and his production, obviously the production certainly matters as well, but having a guy that feels invested in the program here, he’s laid a lot of groundwork here. I’m sure he wants to win a Super Bowl and win championships before he ever exits the game.
“We all want that, but it’s certainly good to hear that that’s his pursuits because we need his leadership, we need his production, we need his participation. Having a great guy in the locker room, an example to follow for our younger players, there’s certainly intangible value to that.”
And for Watt, especially now that he’s healthy, there’s not much of choice he feels he has to make.
"I just think throughout my career, obviously, I had the two years where it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go injury-wise, but it’s just pure focus on trying to make it as long as you can,” Watt said. “I love the game. I love the teammates. I love being out there on the field. I love everything about it, and so there’s really no other choice. It’s not like I’m actively thinking, ‘OK, how can I keep playing?’ It’s just, ‘I have to go out there and play. It doesn’t matter.’
“The one thing that has been the driving force throughout my life is I want to get out on the field and I want to play football.”