HOUSTON -- J.J. Watt wouldn’t ordinarily need to study too intensely to gain knowledge about an opponent, especially one he spent a decade building a rich legacy.
In the case of Watt’s first game against the Houston Texans on Sunday at State Farm Stadium, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year practically needs an intense crash course to learn the names on an overhauled roster after asking for and being granted his release from Texans chairman and chief operating officer Cal McNair after last season.
“There are so many guys I don’t know, I have to use our scouting report,” Watt said. “The roster is almost entirely turned over, so it’s not like I have a history or relationships with the guys on the team because it’s such a brand-new lineup. There’s not a lot from that standpoint, but in terms of the people, the city, the memories and the history, it’s all love.
"When I turn on the film this week and I watch the games and you're looking at NRG Stadium, for 10 years, I've looked at that film and I've been watching the team in blue and white. And now I'm watching it from the other perspective and I'm studying those guys, so it is, it's definitely different. But I don't think I'm gonna forget which guy I'm supposed to tackle if that's what you're asking."
Watt, 32, has nothing to complain about now. He’s playing for the NFL’s lone undefeated team: the 6-0 Arizona Cardinals.
Watt takes no joy in watching the 1-5 Texans being on a five-game losing streak. Not after all that transpired for him in Houston: meeting his wife, Chicago Red Stars soccer player Keilia Watt, winning four AFC South division titles and being named the 2017 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.
"That's why it hurts me to see where it is now, because I believe those fans deserve to be living those high times and to be experiencing those great moments and it hurts to know that they're not, and to know that they're struggling," Watt said. "So, I hope that they get back there at some point and I hope that they get to do that because I know first-hand it's an unbelievable place to play when you're rolling."
Watt saw what was coming with the Texans, and he wanted no part of being on a losing squad.
When asked if he envisioned the Texans experiencing this kind of decline, Watt replied: “Yeah.”
When asked if that was why he asked to be cut rather than fulfill the final year of a $100 million contract, Watt said: “Yeah.”
Watt got fed up with the losing last year and did nothing to hide his disgust and frustration last season during a 4-12 season during which coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was fired after an 0-4 start.
Watt is happy for former teammate Whitney Mercilus getting to join the 5-1 Green Bay Packers and escape a losing team that looks like an unlikely candidate for a dramatic turnaround.
"It's tough, you know," Watt said. "As a guy who was in Houston for the whole time Whitney was there and knowing how long he was there as well, we were there during the best times the organization has ever had. And we've also been there for some of the most difficult times the organization has ever had.
“That's one of the toughest parts for me, is knowing how unbelievable that fanbase is and knowing how unbelievable that city is and the support they show for the team when everything is going great and it is at its peak. It's a beautiful thing and I wish that for that city. I know what it was like and I hope that some day that can happen again there."
Signed to a two-year, $31 million contract after drawing interest from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers and several other suitors, Watt saw something special developing in the Valley of the Sun. He was sold on Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim as well as a defense that includes star pass rusher Chandler Jones and standout safety Budda Baker.
Watt’s intuition proved to be correct. The Cardinals are off to a stellar start.
“I saw a ton of potential,” Watt said. “You have to have a quarterback in this league to have a chance. Kyler’s a great young quarterback with so many skills. I saw talent all over the place. After I signed, we added even more talent.
“I saw opportunity, and I saw a team moving the right direction and that I could, hopefully, help them move further in that direction. It’s been everything I expected and more so far, and I’m really enjoying it.”
And Watt is enjoying watching former Texans All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins do his thing. Hopkins has six touchdown catches for the Cardinals.
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“Hop’s great,” Watt said. “Any time you’ve got a guy on your team with that much talent and can make every play, it’s awesome. The transition has been great.”
Watt is determined to punish the Texans on Sunday. He’s on a roll, too, with eight tackles, one sack, six quarterback hits, two tackles for losses, two passes defensed and a forced fumble in his last two games.
“I’m going out there to do what I always go out there to do,” Watt said. “I’m going to try to dominate the game and win.”
The Texans know what they’re getting themselves into against Watt, a 6-foot-5, 288-pound man with mayhem on his mind.
Watt plays the game with a rare aggressiveness, strength, leverage, mobility and technique. Whether it was his trademark bull-rush, rip move, swim move, spin move or speed rush, Watt confounded blockers with his superiority as an athlete and a tactician who used his mind as much as his body to dominate offenses.
Despite enduring a pair of back surgeries for a herniated disk in 2016, a gruesome broken leg in 2017 and a torn pectoral in 2019, Watt endured the pain and kept coming back strong. He refused to relent when his future was clouded by major injuries and surgeries to repair the significant damage inflicted on his body on the field.
A five-time Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro, Watt holds the franchise record with 172 tackles for loss, 281 hits and 25 forced fumbles and has 531 tackles, 61 passes defended and 16 fumble recoveries. He led the Texans with the four single-highest sack totals in team history in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016. He is the only player in franchise history to accumulate at least 15 percent of a single franchise's sack total.
Watt recorded 74 ½ sacks during his first five NFL seasons, the second-fastest to do so since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982
“I mean every time we went against him in training camp and practice, we worried about him,” Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. He’s playing at a high level. He’s still very disruptive. You still see all things he did when he was here. He’s playing at a high level. They are moving him around.
“He’s playing inside. He’s playing outside. Looks like he’s kind of picking his spots to the particular matchup he may want. So, it’s going to be a concern obviously. We got to do a great job making sure we know where he is and taking care of him and not let him wreck the game.”
Watt is thoroughly enjoying his relocation to Arizona, which has rebounded from an 8-8 season.
It’s all about winning for Watt. That’s what he cares about at this stage of his career. He doesn’t care if he lines up outside or inside, and has thrived as an interior pass rusher in recent weeks.
“Whatever they ask of me, I do, whatever it takes to win,” Watt said. “Our team has that mentality, and it’s a big reason we’re successful. Nobody cares who’s making the plays. Nobody cares who’s getting the credit. We have a special group of players. There’s a ton of talent on this team. The thing that’s making this thing go so far is the business-like atmosphere every single day.
“Kliff sets such a great culture. He trusts us to do our jobs. His trusts his coaches to do their jobs. There’s a belief that we come in every day, do our work and then on Sunday, you try to win the game and turn the page. Nobody here is complaining. Nobody here is making excuses. Every single day is work-like. It’s been awesome.”
Established a 17-point favorite, the Cardinals are heavily expected to improve to 7-0 Sunday after playing Watt’s former team, which lost by a combined margin of 71-3 in its past two road games against the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills with rookie quarterback Davis Mills under center.
“Obviously, they haven’t had the level of success they’re looking for, but they still fight, and Davis gets the ball out of his hands quick,” Watt said.
Watt emphasized that he doesn’t look at this as a revenge game. He’s going to try to treat it as a business situation and not be overly emotional.
"There's obviously something more to it," Watt said. "I don't think that it's what people may think it is because, I mean, you look at the roster and you look at the guys that are there, I mean it's been so massively turned over that there's only a handful of guys that are even there from last year that I played with.
"So, it's not like, I'm like, 'Oh, I want to go and beat my old team' or 'Oh, I can't wait to face this guy,' because it's not the same team. It's not the same organization that I remember and that I was a part of.”