In retrospect, the signs that J.J. Watt’s back injury was more serious than we were told were there. You could see it in his play, as far back as the end of last November. As anyone who has suffered a similar injury can tell you, disc issues are off-the-charts excruciating. The agony is not confined to your back—it runs down the back of your leg all the way to your toes. Sometimes when you try to walk, you will find your leg trembling, not working the way you expect it to. Seeing Watt last season, you might have recognized the symptoms of a Superman trying to grit out a severe injury through sheer force of will, namely his agonizing limp on his way back to the defensive huddle between every play, and the fact that much of his trademark seismic explosiveness had gone.
Watt notched 13.5 sacks in his first 11 games last year. Over the past five, he managed only four, three of those coming in a week seventeen matchup with lowly Jacksonville, whose left tackle Luke Joeckel played so badly he was moved from tackle to guard in the offseason. A master with few rivals in recent NFL history at batting down passes, Watt had swatted away five through his first six games. He wouldn’t knock down another until two days after Christmas, and blocked two more in that Jaguars game. And that was it for the season. In the playoff rout dished out by the Chiefs, he was a non-entity.
After the season ended, it emerged that Watt had been trying to tough out both a herniated disc and no fewer than five torn core muscles. At the time, CBS Sports called him a “cyborg.”
Well, he’s not. None of us are. Not even the most dominant NFL defensive lineman since Reggie White and the most iconic Houston pro-gridiron star since Earl Campbell (whose post-career struggle with painkiller addiction has showed him to be all-too-human as well). Achilles had his heel, Superman his Kryptonite.
And now Watt has gone under the knife three times this year, first in Philadelphia in January. That procedure was an effort to reassemble those five torn core muscles. Not long after that, he confessed that he thought for a time that his career might be over. Some of those muscles had been completely detached from the bone. He told reporters he spent the first ten post-op days in a Philadelphia hotel room in bed, wondering if his career was kaput, his mind racing and foggy. And then one day, finally, he was able to lift his right leg above horizontal and begin his rehab.
Which, it would come to pass, would also include facing the scalpel again, this time to fix that herniated disc in his spine. He waited until July, causing to some wonder about the timing. Why did he wait so long? Would he ready for week one? Would it be wise to come back that fast?
Within days, Watt had publicly vowed to be on the field for the first game, despite a consensus that such operations took at least a couple more weeks to recover from than Watt’s stated timetable allowed. As of July 31, six weeks before the opener, doctors were advising Watt to avoid standing or even sweating, but number 99 was still vowing to square up against the Bears on September 11.
The comeback lasted three games, in which Watt barely resembled the sack master of old. Two weeks ago it was announced that his disc woes had reemerged. He is out for a minimum of eight weeks now, possibly longer, and according to the doomsday scenario, he could be forced to retire.
On his All 22 page, NFL injury expert Will Carroll gave a fifteen-minute chat on the subject. (Audio is shaky for the first minute.) A brief summary: Did Watt come back too soon, and if so, at whose impetus? According to Carroll, yes to the first, and according to his sources, it was likely Watt rushing his own return. He says that his sources told him that Watt not only insisted on suiting up for week one, but also declined being put on a play count.
Carroll went on to discuss the implications of the injury? What were his options? What were the possible prognoses? I linked an anonymous Texas orthopedic surgeon to Carroll’s thoughts for a second opinion.
If it had been Watt rushing his return to play, that would not surprise the surgeon I spoke with. (We’ll call him Doc.) “Usually the impetus to return to play early is not coming from the GM, owner or coach—it’s coming from the player,” he said. “If you take care of athletes you hear it all the time. They want to get on the field. And he is a motivated, hard-charging guy who falls in that category of players where you [as a doctor] have to take what they say with a grain of salt because you know in the back of your mind they will do whatever they can to be back on the field ASAP.”
Still, he aimed a little of the blame at the Texans’ staff. “There is no doubt that the front office and the medical staff of the Texans took this super-seriously in terms of the risk of recurrence,” he said. “But it’s never easy. It is easy with the kinds of players who say ‘I’m still hurting,’ and you say ‘Okay, you are not going out there.’ But when they say ‘Hey, let me get back out there,’ and you are like ‘Well, this is a little faster than the normal bell curve, but if you are feeling alright…’”
Without getting too technical about the medical aspects, Doc only saw one of the three scenarios Carroll laid out as likely: a “revision” of July’s microdiscectomy surgery. Doc believes that unless Watt was ready to hang up the cleats going in, neither of the other two options—spinal fusion nor a disc replacement—were viable options: “I can’t imagine anybody would do a surgery like those on J.J. Watt. That would be a huge roll of the dice, totally unpredictable as to whether he could ever play football again after that.”
And Doc was right. The day after our chat, Watt underwent that revisionary microdiscectomy, possibly ending his season. What’s the prognosis? Doc had three scenarios: he comes back exactly like he was before surgery, he comes back not quite as good as he was before, and three, he never comes back.
“If you ask me what is going to happen, it would be number two. He’s not gonna be the same guy he was two or three years ago before he had two lower back surgeries. Nobody can say if he is gonna be 90 or 95 percent of what he used to be, which would be much better than everybody else out there, or is he gonna be 60 percent? It’s just hard to say. It’s unlikely that he is not going to have any lingering issues with this down the road. With recurrent injuries in general, this is a bad place to have it happen, and with players in general this is a bad player to have it happen to. But that’s just part of sports, obviously.”
Carroll spoke briefly post-surgery to Philly.com. He believes that Watt could take as much as a full year to rehab, and at least Watt has good company in the two multiple spinal surgery department: Peyton Manning. Manning rallied to have some of his best seasons post-surgery, including that record-breaking 55-TD, 5,477-yard 2013 campaign some rank as the best regular season ever, one just two years removed from 2011, when he rehabbed through the season.
Yet there are some key differences. Manning’s problematic spot is his neck, and Watt’s is all the way at the other end of the spine. And Manning did not have to fire out and collide with behemoth tackles on every play.
Carroll said Watt, while suffering by the comparison somewhat, could be seen as similar to Bob Sanders, the tough, pint-sized Colts safety who was AFC Defensive Player of the Year during Indy’s 2007-2008 Super Bowl-winning season but only played more than six games one other season in his injury-abbreviated career. Seahawks safety Kenny Easley, Packers receiver Sterling Sharpe, and Broncos running back Terrell Davis put together a few stellar seasons before their bodies broke down. If he can’t come back from his latest knee injury, former Longhorn great Jamaal Charles might end up in this greats-who-could-not-sustain category.
As for the near future of the Texans, some are wondering about the salary cap implications of an incapacitated Watt:
[We] should note that Watt is in the first season of a six-year, $100 million contract extension that keeps him with the Texans through the 2021 season. It’s basically impossible to imagine Houston wanting to cut ties with Watt anytime soon, but if the Texans did, the first time it would save them money on the salary cap is in 2018, when they could cut $9 million off the books by letting him go. Barring a total inability to play or a complete collapse of his on-field productivity, though, it’s hard to imagine that actually happening.
Even without Watt in the line-up for the rest of the year, the Texans are still contenders in the woeful AFC South, even if it would seem likely that any postseason run would be short. In that scenario, the Texans would once more be drafting somewhere in the twenties and unlikely to pick up a fast-rising superstar, and stuck with Watt’s salary cap hit through next year, and thus would remain mired in the same “pretty good but not elite” malaise the Houston Rockets have found themselves in for most of two decades now: a little better than .500, with one swift postseason exit after another.
But maybe all this gloom and doom is premature. As Doc said, Watt could conceivably come back as good as ever, and if anyone can do it, it’s J.J. There is just this unease, this discomfiting sense of “Here we go again, Houston.”
To lose him to injury at 27 would just be another typical sad chapter in the life of the miserable sports town that is Houston. Just when Brock Osweiler started to flash something of the potential the Texans hoped would finally solidify their long-abysmal signal-calling, and just when Jadeveon Clowney appeared to be blossoming into the star the Texans hoped he would be when they drafted him number one overall, the other bookend to what was shaping up to be a truly elite defense, the heart and soul of both the team and the whole city’s 2016 sports pantheon, goes down with a career-threatening injury.
So, so typically Houston.