In a class of his own: The case for Texans DE J.J. Watt as the NFL MVP
1. relative worth, merit, or importance;
2. monetary or material worth, as in commerce or trade;
3. the worth of something in terms of the amount of other things for which it can be exchanged;
4. equivalent worth or return in money, material, services, etc.:
5. estimated or assigned worth; valuation;
6. denomination, as of a monetary issue or a postage stamp;
a. magnitude; quantity; number represented by a figure, symbol, or the like;
b. a point in the range of a function; a point in the range corresponding to a given point in the domain of a function.
How do we define player value in sports?
Value to a team? Value to a position? Value over the other players at his position in an overall sense? In football, value is most intrinsically defined by the efforts of the players who contribute the most to the success of a team, and these days, that player is most often the quarterback. Since the NFL first began awarding a Most Valuable Player designation in 1957, 37 quarterbacks have won the award, 18 running backs, one linebacker (Lawrence Taylor, 1986), one defensive tackle (Alan Page, 1971) and one placekicker (Mark Moseley, 1982). Of the multiple-time winners, only Jim Brown stands out among a plethora of quarterbacks.
This year, Aaron Rodgers is the favorite to win the award, and he's certainly got the performances and numbers to back that up. Rodgers is arguably playing as well or better than he did in 2011, the year he won the award. Most will tell you that Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt is second in line for that award this season, and given the scarcity of such awards allotted over time to defensive players, Watt should be honored to be in the discussion at such a high plateau.
That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it, which is the way I tend to do, is that if anybody but Watt wins the league's Most Valuable Player award this season, the NFL might as well do away with the damned thing. Because as impressive as Rodgers is this season (a 66.3% completion rate for 3,325 yards, 32 touchdowns and three interceptions), what Watt is accomplishing has literally never been seen before. Not at any level of football.
If you had a baseball player who hit 60 home runs and won a batting title in a season in the post-PED era, added Golden Glove-level of play in the outfield and just so happened to throw in a few key relief pitching appearances as well, you might have a hardball version of Watt. Sammy Baugh leading the league in various passing, punting and interception statistics in the 1930s and '40s is a pretty good comparison from a pure value perspective, though the decades of specialization since Baugh's era makes Watt's accomplishments even more of an outlier.
When he scored on a one-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick in the Texans' 45-21 win over the Tennessee Titans last Sunday, Watt added to a day in which he also added two quarterback sacks, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble and six officially tabulated hits. He became the first NFL defensive lineman since Connie Mack Berry of the 1944 Chicago Bears to score at least five touchdowns in a season (Berry actually scored six). On the season, Watt has 11.5 sacks, 54 total tackles (37 solo), three forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, eight passes defended, nine stuffs and a blocked kick.
Those are the traditional metrics, which tell you a bit about Watt's dominant season (Oh, he also has three receptions on three targets for three touchdowns). When you get into the charting numbers, Watt's value over the aggregate defensive lineman becomes glaringly obvious. Forget Value Over Replacement Player — Watt's value over a lot of guys who are deservedly going to the Pro Bowl is just nuts.
Through 12 games this season, Watt has 29 runs stops, per Pro Football Focus, tied with Tennessee's Jurrell Casey for the most in the league among players classified as 3-4 defensive ends. Watt is that much more valuable because he can line up and play effectively as the opposing offensive line's focus everywhere from nose shade to true end, but that's the positional starting point. Damon Harrison of the Jets leads all defensive tackles with 26 run stops and Kroy Biermann leads the league with 32 run stops, so Watt places tied for second overall. That's for a player who is set to get after the quarterback on just about every play, which makes his efforts even more impressive. Watch the tape and you can see Watt, over and over, re-jigger his positioning to take care of an errant running back.
From a total pass rush perspective, however, Watt has absolutely no equal in the current NFL. Per PFF, he is absolutely destroying every other defensive player as a pure quarterback terrorizer. He has 33 quarterback hits and 35 quarterback hurries to go with his 11.5 sacks. The next best 3-4 end in hits is Green Bay's Mike Daniels with 10, and the next best in hurries is San Francisco's Ray McDonald with 28.
Now, on to Watt against the real quarterback disruptors: 4-3 ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. New Orleans' Junior Galette leads all 3-4 ends in total pressures with 55, which Watt eclipses in hits and hurries alone. Chicago's Jared Allen leads 4-3 ends with 17, just about half of Watt's total, and Seattle's Michael Bennett leads all defensive players with 41 hurries. Not half bad either, considering that Bennett plays a lot of snaps as a five-tech defensive tackle. Still, nobody even close to Watt's total output.
Among 3-4 outside linebackers, Kansas City's Justin Houston leads the pack with 61, which again wouldn't match Watt's total pressures with just hits and hurries. Indy's Erik Walden leads that position with 15 hits (not even close) and Houston has 40 hurries as a pure edge rusher.
"Pure edge rusher" should be taken into context here. It's worth repeating that Watt doesn't have the constant edge as his advantage. And he doesn't have a Cliff Avril or Tamba Hali on the other side to mitigate what opposing offensive lines do. And in fact, here's where we come to the "Well, the Texans went 2-14 with Watt last year, and they're 6-6 with him this year, so how can HE be the MVP" part of our discussion.
It's a fair point if your definition of value in this case is the extent to which a player helps his team amass victories, but one could just as easily argue that it didn't matter how great Watt was in 2013 when Matt Schaub was throwing pick-sixes all over the place and the defense was falling apart around him. There's a reason the Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in this year's draft. Of course, Clowney has barely seen the field this year, which means that Watt has had this ridiculously historic season with very little help around him.
Houston's secondary is average at best. The linebacker corps has been injured and ineffective. Whitney Mercilus ranks second on Houston's defense in overall pressures with four sacks, 10 hits and 18 hurries. His 25 total stops (passing stops as well) ranks second to Watt's 41. Three Texans players — defensive backs D.J. Swearinger and Kendrick Lewis, and linebacker Brian Cushing — have 10 or more missed tackles this season. Watt, for all his opportunities, has six.
Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, whose Jacksonville team will face the Texans this Sunday, has seen his share of great defensive players; he was the defensive coordinator in Seattle when the Seahawks built their current Legion of Boom. And to him, the question of whether Watt should be a real MVP candidate is a no-brainer.
“That’s an easy question to answer,” Bradley said Wednesday. “I think he is extremely deserving, watching him on tape and just the impact that he has. I always judge it by if he’s internally motivated. Does he want to be the best? You put a check mark by him in that category. Then, does he elevate everybody around him to a higher level, and he does that, so put another check by his name. I think when you have a guy like that, that elevates people and is internally motivated, those players are special and they don’t come around very often. He has those traits, and all of the statistics that back it up as well.”
Texans fans have been chanting "MVP" at their home games of late, but Watt doesn't seem to want to be drawn into the discussion.
“I can’t control the way anybody votes or anybody’s opinion or how they write or what they think," Watt said this week. "The only thing I can control is what I can control and that is going to practice every day and playing as hard as I can, studying as much film as possible, going to the weight room and working out and then going out there on game day and making as many plays as I can.
"At the end of the day, however people want to vote, and [whomever] they want to vote for, is completely up to them," Watt added.
Well, Watt is controlling things on the field in ways we've never seen before. He is playing his positions as well as it is possible to play them, and he seems willing and able to hit it on the other side of the ball as well. We may never see his like again, and it would be a shame if his incredible run (however long it lasts at this level) isn't commemorated with the highest individual honor any NFL player can receive.
Put simply, J.J. Watt is the NFL's Most Valuable Player this season. Whether the voters think so or not.