The Cardinals Got the Better of the Texans Again by Signing J.J. Watt in Free Agency

Houston’s continued implosion is old news by this point, but the Cardinals are big winners by again being ready to pounce.
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The Cardinals wasted no time diving into the free-agent waters, giving former Texans defensive end J.J. Watt a two-year deal Monday worth $31 million ($23 million guaranteed). This is notable because they did not wait to see what kind of market would develop, or what kind of edge/interior rushers would escape the franchise tag and join Watt in free agency. They did not wait to see what kind of financial trends would emerge amid a declining salary cap.

They did not wait for anything, because Watt is one of the best players at his position and sometimes common sense prevails, just like it did when the Texans called a year ago begging them to take DeAndre Hopkins off their hands. Watt is a multifaceted tool who can bolster the Cardinals’ pass rush in several different ways, joining Chandler Jones to make up one of perhaps the five most formidable pass-rushing tandems in the league.

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This stands in stark contrast to what is happening in Houston, where the Texans’ best players continue to be shipped away, cut or traded amid this bubbling culture change. Their long gamble, that the right players and not necessarily good players will provide a sustainable future, is an interesting one. Their previous string of public relations hiccups, which necessitated they do the publicly acceptable thing by releasing Watt instead of holding him in a headlock like they are doing with Deshaun Watson, meant that they will reap no significant draft capital for a player who was snapped up in a moment’s notice at more than $15 million per season. So, not only are they ridding themselves of players who are coveted by the rest of the NFL, but they are receiving nothing in return except for more bad press.

Thank God for Arizona, which is now positioned to be the definitive case study on what Houston will be missing out on.

Watt’s signing with the Cardinals is a good time to wonder what could have been. What if the Texans had simply recognized that they were in a rut offensively and administratively, sought the advice of their best players and hired a new coach and general manager who could best accentuate the talent on the roster? You know, the same roster that was up more than three touchdowns on the eventual Super Bowl–winning Chiefs in the AFC divisional round a scant 14 months ago. What if the Texans had not shed themselves of everything advantageous about their roster and completely alienated their remaining valuable assets in the process? What if they deemed Hopkins and Watt necessary to go, but got something reasonable for them in return that could somehow pacify the deepening unhappiness of their superstar quarterback?

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Arizona will be able to provide some insight. In Hopkins’s first year with the Cardinals, he set career highs in catches and catch percentage. Only Travis Kelce generated more drive-sustaining first downs in the NFL. In turn, Kyler Murray threw for more yards, took almost half as many sacks, increased his number of touchdowns, decreased his interception ratio and improved his passer rating over the previous year.

Now Watt joins a team that, depending on what else it does in free agency, could end up using the future Hall of Fame defensive end to pivot its roster toward an amoebic, positionless juggernaut.

The question is why Houston couldn’t see the same vision and what the Texans’ real plans are. Sometimes, the final product is hard to see. There are architects who can toil in obscurity before delivering a masterpiece. Houston’s only hope is that its new brain trust has yet to show us the good in systematically destroying the best parts of the roster—players that the Cardinals continue to trip over to acquire.

Sometimes common sense prevails. Arizona and Houston will play one another at some point this season. Here’s hoping some of that sense rubs off on whoever is pulling the strings inside the Texans’ facility.