When Watt got the news on Oct. 27 that he had torn the muscle, he assumed he was done for the season and said he "didn’t even know that there was a possibility" that he could come back.
But a couple days after he had surgery, he "was feeling so good" that he asked his doctors whether he actually had a chance to return before the end of the season.
“We left the door open for a possibility and from there it was just literally day-by-day, just work, doing whatever I could do and we arrived here,” Watt said. “I wouldn't call it a difficult decision, no. I mean I get a chance to play in the playoffs with my team and go out there and try and help us win football games.”
Watt returned to practice on Tuesday with the goal of playing in the Texans’ first playoff game. Now that Watt has started practicing, Houston has 21 days to add him to the active roster or he cannot come back at all this season.
How long does it typically take to recover from a torn pectoral muscle?
Tuesday marked eight weeks since Watt had surgery. According to ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell, the typical recovery time for a torn pectoral muscle is three to four months.
“There’s biology involved, in terms of tissue healing,” Bell said. “You can have a really good surgical repair, but you still need time for the tissue to not only heal from the surgery itself, but then to adapt to the increased load.”
Bell said this is a typical injury for pass-rushers because they “generate a ton of force through their pec” while they are playing.
Watt’s teammate, outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, tore his pectoral muscle in 2017 and said it took him around eight months to get back to full strength. Mercilus said it took him almost six months just to get his range of motion back and that he was in a sling for about a month to let the muscle rest.
“[I had to] just let it rest to have the scar tissue just heal over,” Mercilus said. “That's one of the biggest things. So when the scar tissue heals over, now your range of motion is shot, so you can't move too fast. So now it's a daily process once you have the sling, to move it slowly outwards, external rotation, overhead and stuff like that. Once you get all the range of motion back, then you can start building that muscle back.”
Watt said that as he went through the rehab process after surgery and learned there “was an outside shot” of being able to come back, it gave him a “glimmer of hope.”
"We kind of kept trying stuff to see if we were at that level and we'd be surprised when we were, and then we'd move it forward a little more and we'd be surprised,” Watt said.
But even as he got closer to that becoming a reality, Watt said he kept the news “pretty quiet” because he didn’t know whether he could really make it happen.
“You never want to over-promise and under-deliver, so I think this whole time I've never wanted to promise anything to anybody,” Watt said. “I just wanted to promise that I was going to work hard every single day for the possibility of coming back and that's all I've done.
“And I'm not promising anything today. All I'm promising is that I'm going back out on the practice field today and I get the opportunity to be back with my team and to work towards that first playoff game.”
What risks does Watt face if he plays in a game?
If Watt plays in a game before the tissue has healed, he could face an increased risk of re-tearing his pectoral muscle.
“You have to be able to apply that load to that tissue again,” Bell said. “So it’s not just a question of healing from that surgery, it’s being strong enough to withstand anything that might come its way in the course of a football game.”
"We left the door open for a possibility and from there it was just literally day-by-day, just work, doing whatever I could do and we arrived here." JJ Watt
And Watt knows that.
“When I discuss the element of risk, I mean there’s two options: It's going to hold up or it's not,” Watt said. “That's basically the way she goes, and the reason that I'm comfortable with that risk is because I know the consequences of that risk.
“But I do feel very confident from what we've done in the weight room, from what we've done ballistically training, to where the strength level is compared to where it was before the injury. I'm very confident in the way that it has reacted."
Watt has come back quickly from surgery before. In 2016, Watt had back surgery in late July, but returned to the field for the regular-season opener just more than a month later. Less than a month later, Watt reaggravated the injury and the Texans put him on injured reserve. He needed a second surgery.
The following offseason, Watt conceded that he may have rushed back from the first surgery, and that he learned it was more important to get completely healthy than to rush back to prove that he could.
"I finally kind of realized like, ‘OK, do what you need to do to make sure that you're getting back 100% healthy," he said in February 2017. "'Don't try to impress anyone even if it's yourself. ... Just do everything the right way.'"
If Watt plays in the postseason, he will be in a harness that will help protect the injury by controlling his shoulder motion. He said he has been wearing the harness for the past couple of weeks as he has trained and practiced on his own, and that while it protects him from “going to the true extreme lengths backwards,” he has “full forward and upward motion available” and it hasn’t bothered him at all.
“You can pass tests X, Y, and Z, but if you go out and you’re in an uncontrolled environment where some guy who doesn’t care that you recently had a surgery could be working against that arm, trying to rip your arm off, there’s a chance that you could re-tear this,” Bell said.
Even if Watt makes it back to the active roster, how much will he be able to contribute?
That’s what the Texans are trying to figure out, and they won’t really know until they see him go through several practices. Watt said that coming back from this injury felt a lot easier than others because, unlike when he needed back surgery and when he broke his leg, his pectoral muscle doesn’t affect his lower-body movement.
“The nice thing about this surgery was that this whole time I've been able to run, I've been able to work out my legs [and] I've been able to do agility drills, position drills,” Watt said. “So that has been a huge help both mentally and physically for this recovery.”
Watt and the Texans aren’t sure how much he will be able to play, but he acknowledged that it’s probably “not going to be an every play type of thing” in his first game back.
“I don't think that would be the best situation, but we'll see how it feels over the next two weeks and get a gauge for it before we go into that game and I'm sure we'll have a good plan going in,” Watt said.