J.J. Watt hasn’t thrown a single touchdown pass this year. That’s almost forty fewer than Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, or Aaron Rodgers. All of those players—quarterbacks for playoff-bound teams—also have more than 4,000 passing yards more than Watt, the standout Houston Texans defensive end whose passing yardage total is, likewise, a big ol’ goose egg.
When it comes to rushing yards, Watt doesn’t fare much better. He’s got zero on the year, compared to a whopping 1,745 (with twelve touchdowns!) from DeMarco Murray, or 1,341 (and eight touchdowns) for Steelers tailback Le’Veon Bell. Both running backs will, presumably, continue their successful seasons into the playoffs. Watt’s rushing line? 0 yards, 0 touchdowns. His shot at a playoff bid? The words “not mathematically eliminated” spring to mind, but the Texans need to beat the Jaguars, and hope that both the flailing Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Ravens, and that the Kansas City Chiefs beat the surging San Diego Chargers, in order to earn an unlikely bid in the postseason.
In other words: Watt doesn’t throw passes, and Watt doesn’t run the ball. He’s not the centerpiece of a high-powered, playoff-bound offense. That is, ultimately, the gist of the argument against J.J. Watt earning his first NFL MVP award this season.
What does Watt do? Basically everything else. He’s certainly the centerpiece of one of the NFL’s best defenses—a defense that, since returning from the bye, has been historically effective. (On Sunday, Watt’s Texans held Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco to a 4-of-22 with three interceptions into the third quarter.) He has more sacks, with 17.5, than any defensive lineman in the NFL (Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston has a half-sack more); he has more tackles than anyone else at his position; he’s tied for third at his position in fumbles forced, and holds first place in fumbles recovered; he’s tied for second in interceptions, and leads defensive ends with 11 passes defensed. He’s tied for first place in the number of defensive touchdowns, and he’s also got three additional TD’s on offense, where he occasionally lines up at tight end. (Every time a quarterback has thrown the ball to Watt this year, he’s scored with it.)
Perhaps the only disappointing thing about Watt’s season is that, in week 15, when third-string quarterback Tom Savage was injured in the 4th quarter, it was punter Shane Lechler who was warming up as the emergency QB and not #99 himself. Everything J.J. Watt attempts on a football field, he succeeds at in ways that make him a once-in-a-generation talent.
But Watt probably won’t be the NFL MVP when the award is voted on at the end of the season. Those stats up there about passing yards, touchdown passes, rushing yards, and playoff appearances? They tend to matter a lot more than simply being the best player in football, which anyone paying attention to the game can pretty clearly see that Watt is.
It’s not just that Watt can singlehandedly take over football games. It’s not just that Watt’s presence on the field creates opportunities for his teammates that turns middling players and replacement-level talent into the best pass defense in the NFL. It’s not even that he does every single thing a defensive football player can do better than anybody else in the league. It’s all of that combined that makes Watt a pretty clear answer to the question “Which player is the most valuable to his team?”
The Broncos would probably not be a dominant team without Peyton Manning. The Packers would likely stink without Aaron Rodgers. The Colts could well be a 2-14 team if Andrew Luck weren’t around. But while all of those players are vital performers, none of them have been dominant all year long. Manning is as likely to toss four picks in a primetime loss to the Bengals as he is to flawlessly execute the team’s gameplan, Rodgers can fumble away a chance to clinch the division in the end zone to the Buffalo Bills, and Andrew Luck can make the Cowboys defense look downright dominant. They’re all fantastic players whose teams rely on them, but we’ve seen all of them play better in other seasons. Every one of them has had a bad game or three in 2014.
We’ve seldom seen anybody play as well as J.J. Watt has, though. Defensive players are almost never considered for the MVP award—only former New York Giants defensive end and current registered sex offender Lawrence Taylor, and former Minnesota Vikings defensive end and current Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page, have been so honored. That’s not a trend that’s likely to change for a team that will finish the season, at best, 9-7, and which will probably miss the playoffs. (The last MVP from a team that wasn’t playoff-bound was O.J. Simpson.)
But in a year without a clear-cut offensive leader for the award, the argument against Watt is dim, at best. It essentially boils down to “he doesn’t play quarterback or running back,” and that’s not a legit definition of the award. DeMarco Murray is having a terrific season, but one could make the argument that he’s not even the most valuable player on his team. Le’Veon Bell is absolutely the most important player on the Steelers, but he’s not having as strong a year as Murray.
In other words, there’s a strong argument as to why the Manning/Rodgers/Luck/Brady axis shouldn’t receive the award, or why the top running backs are less spectacular than MVPs of years past. The fact that Watt’s team isn’t playoff-bound is a mark against him, but that’s a rather arbitrary factor—is it Watt’s fault that the Texans have trotted out Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, and Case Keenum at quarterback this year? Does the fact that the four horsemen of bad quarterback play have lived up to their expectations mean that Watt doesn’t get triple-teamed at points by every opponent, or that every single offensive coordinator’s top priority when facing the Texans is figuring out a way to slow Watt down? If being the most potent and disruptive defensive player in the NFL—with more offensive touchdowns at tight end than stars like Jordan Cameron, Vernon Davis, Charles Clay, or Jace Amaro—isn’t enough to make it clear that Watt is the most valuable player in the NFL, what does the guy have to do?
Ultimately, the 2014 Houston Texans will be remembered as a team that exceeded some expectations—the fact that they’re even in the hunt for the playoffs in Week 17, coming off of a 2-14 season, is impressive. But the fact that the team doesn’t play well enough to make Watt a realistic MVP candidate is revealing: At this point, the Texans aren’t worthy of his talent. Give them a real quarterback, or some players on defense who he doesn’t have to make better—who might be able to free up some new opportunities for him—and the J.J. Watt we could see would be undeniable. Even on a Texans team that’s a longshot for the playoffs with a starting quarterback who was on the practice squad in Kansas City a week ago, he’s got a strong argument for it. It’s just unusual to see one place—the minds of the MVP voters—where Watt isn’t unstoppable.