There were a plethora of factors that led former free-agent defensive end J.J. Watt to sign with the Arizona Cardinals at the beginning of March and the three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year and five-time All-Pro was not shy about getting into the details.
One of the more underrated players comparatively to others involved was Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who served on the same defensive staff as Watt for three years when he was the Houston Texans defensive backs coach from 2011-13.
"Had a great time with Vance early in my career," Watt said at his introductory press conference Tuesday. "He's a great coach. Very knowledgeable, great command of the system and his players, he knows how to handle the guys. He's a great coach, so that has its own merits to it."
The Cardinals pulled out all the stops to entice Watt to Arizona after he asked the Texans for his release in February. Pre-existing relationships with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins played a key role, as did the opportunity to reunite with Joseph in a defensive system similar to what Watt thrived in with the Texans under former coordinate Wade Phillips.
"You've got a defensive scheme that's led by Vance Joseph, who I was with my first three years down in Houston under Wade Phillips," Watt said. "And Vance runs a similar scheme to Wade, which is a scheme I'm very familiar with and very comfortable with and excited to play in.
"The scheme is something that I'm very excited to play in again. Trying to get a lot of 1-on-1s, trying to get guys freed up so that you have that opportunity to go get after the passer while rushing and coverage work in tandem together and so we get covering on the back end and we get rush up front to make them get the ball out quicker. All things are going to help each other be better, so it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to that."
There was another Joseph in the equation. Cardinals free-agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph was with the Texans from 2012-19, a tenure that overlapped with Watt and where he was led by Vance Joseph as his position coach, and the NFL veteran told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday that he gave Watt a glowingly positive review of the Cardinals after his one-year stint with the franchise.
"He was able to coach us up," Johnathan Joseph said of Vance Joseph. "[He] coached us individually to our strengths and what we can do best and get the most value for. And that's the same conversation I had with J.J., the same conversation I'm sure he had with J.J. And I told J.J. just my experience with him being a defensive coordinator, I never was around that. Just to be around that in my time in Arizona, it was a pleasure to see a guy like Vance just control the room, get the attention of everyone, just had his presence on that team and everyone respects him.
"He's definitely a guy that I think should get a crack as a head coach again, but obviously those things have to fall in place. Just being around him, seeing how he handled himself, conduct the room, put guys in the right place each and every week, come prepared in the game plan and how he holds his guys accountable, it was just a pleasure just to watch that and just to see how far he's grown throughout his career."
Arizona plays an attacking 3-4 defensive scheme and Watt said he is looking forward to opening up opportunities for others, like edge rusher Chandler Jones and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, as well as creating more opportunities to attack the quarterback himself.
In 2020, Watt had just five sacks, the least amount in his career over the course of a full 16-game season. Prior to that, Watt's lowest amount in that category after playing in all 16 games was 5.5 as a rookie with the Texans in 2011.
Watt admitted he still "has a lot left in the tank" and is hoping that a return to a system he finds comfort in unlocks that extra gear. From the Cardinals perspective, they were happy to spend what was necessary to bring him to Arizona and have complete trust in their defensive coordinator to tap into Watt's motor.
"When you look at Vance Joseph, our defensive coordinator, who's done a terrific job and previously coached with the Texans while J.J. was there in his first three years, I think it was just a lot of things came together," Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday. "We were just so excited when we realized we were a finalist and then over the weekend it really became clear that he wanted to become a Cardinal. We just needed to work out a few things, which we did. And then he wanted to release it, which he did and that awesome photograph that he put out [Monday] morning."