On Sunday, J.J. Watt played what was almost certainly his final down in a Houston Texans uniform. Things ended as they so often did for Watt, a maximum-effort player whose teams rarely matched his intensity—with the star defender bull-rushing a quarterback, being double-teamed by two offensive linemen, and then gamely attempting to swat down a pass that his teammates allowed to turn into a game-losing completion. While there’s a year remaining on the multi-year contract extension Watt signed in 2014, his $17.5 million salary isn’t guaranteed, and the 31-year-old star is a luxury that a rebuilding Texans squad, under new leadership, most likely can’t afford.
Watt himself acknowledged the possibility that his Texans career may have ended after the game, telling reporters that “I’ve certainly considered it” and expressing his gratitude to the city of Houston. “I think this city knows, I hope they know how I feel about them and how thankful I am,” he said. Where Watt will play next year is an open question. Pittsburgh, where his brothers T.J. and Derek Watt play, is a possibility—but most teams that are closer to being competitive than the Texans would also be interested in having Watt on the field and in the locker room.
The Texans don’t have a deep legacy. The organization’s history is intentionally (and legally) separated from that of the Houston Oilers, the franchise that preceded it, and the Texans have never advanced beyond the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. The team’s Ring of Honor celebrates only one player—wide receiver Andre Johnson, a mega-talent who endured twelve seasons of catching passes from players such as David Carr, Matt Schaub, Sage Rosenfels, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Johnson is an all-time great who’s likely to end up in the NFL Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2022, but looking past Johnson, the list of legendary Texans players gets thin: There’s Arian Foster, the undrafted running back who made four Pro Bowls during his time in Houston; Mario Williams, a pass rusher whose best years came after leaving Houston for the Buffalo Bills; Schaub, a journeyman quarterback who occasionally did impressive things under center for the Texans; and players like Duane Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, and Jadeveon Clowney, all of whom flashed the potential to be enduring parts of the franchise’s legacy before they were unceremoniously dumped in baffling trades. Deshaun Watson, the team’s fourth-year quarterback, is still a legacy piece for the organization to build around, provided the incoming leadership doesn’t swap him for a late-round draft pick and a bag of cleats.
The cupboard of all-time-great Houston Texans is downright bare, in other words. Watt being one of them, however, probably isn’t enough to keep him in Houston for the rest of his career—unless he opts to take a pay cut out of loyalty to the city skyline. Besides, if the Texans are going to capitalize on Watson’s potential, they’ll need to get younger and cheaper fast. They don’t have a first- or second-round draft pick in 2021, thanks to some befuddling decisions made by the previous regime, so Watt’s salary cap figure will be one of the only tools the Texans front office has to improve the roster. But the team should be planning to induct Watt into the Ring of Honor, retire his number, and offer him a ceremonial front-office position as soon as possible. Would it be weird for the Texans to have a guy who just signed a contract with the Steelers or the Packers in their Ring of Honor? Sure, but only slightly weirder than trading away two high draft picks for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, and they did that.
Okay, so Watt’s canonization in Texans history will almost certainly have to wait until he’s not just no longer a Texan, but also no longer an active NFL player. Still, the conversations to get there should already be happening within the Texans’ shadowy corridors of power. Houston sports are in a dire state right now: The Texans stank all year. The Astros* are likely to lose a number of star players in free agency, and José Altuve’s legacy is tainted by the same trash-can era asterisk that belongs next to the team’s name. And the face of the Rockets franchise still wants out, with all signs pointing to the near certainty that James Harden’s beard will soon adorn billboards in another city.
Meanwhile, J.J. Watt is still the guy who raised a zillion dollars for Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and who capped the Texans’ miserable season by articulating the perspective of Houston sports fans who just want to support a team that tries as hard as he does. Paying him to remain on the team next season might not be an option for a franchise in desperate need of a makeover, but anything the Texans can do short of that to pay tribute to Watt’s enormous impact on the city and the franchise is worth doing. There are only a handful of Houston Texans worth celebrating in the team’s nineteen-year history, and if its executives can’t give the fans a winner, they can at least honor the greatest player those fans ever got to watch lose.