GLENDALE, Ariz. — His workout routines are so intense that spectators feel winded after watching. Ask him to perform one more rep and he’ll give you two. Schedule a training session for two hours and he will give you three. And yet, nothing in his past was as hard as what J.J. Watt is going through this morning inside State Farm Stadium.
Watt, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year who was one of just three unanimous defensive selections on the 2010s All-Decade Team, is doing … nothing. More specifically, he is watching from the sideline as his new team goes through practice.
It is as painful for him as any significant injury sustained over the past few seasons. This is not what he envisioned when he left the Houston Texans — the only NFL home he had ever known — for the Valley of the Sun and the challenge of helping the Arizona Cardinals return to the playoffs for the first time in six years. His expectation was to set the example, to be at the front of the line in every way possible. Heck, he played 91 percent of the Texans’ defensive snaps last season at 31 years old because, in part, he wanted to be accountable and show a group of 20-somethings along the line how it should be done.
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So imagine how much it stings now to be the crown jewel of the Cardinals’ free-agent signings this offseason, the person on whom the organization — if not the state — is resting significant hope for a return to relevancy, and you’re unable to sweat and grind alongside your brothers. It eats at him in a way few things can, but he accepts that he must be smart with a hamstring that was tweaked during pre-camp conditioning runs. It is about trusting the process and being there for the moments that really matter, like the Sept. 12 season opener at Tennessee.
When asked if the injury is a cause for concern, he sheds both the question and his smile as easily and as quickly as he would a blocking tight end. “Not at all,” he says.
Watt knows he is under the microscope after signing a potential $31 million, two-year deal with the Cardinals in March. He was once the most dominant defensive player in the game, someone who turned every field into his personal playground, with 69 sacks in 64 games from 2012 through ’15. But a rash of significant injuries took hold from that point, limiting him to eight or fewer games in three of the next four seasons. If it wasn’t multiple back surgeries, it was torn abductors or a tibial plateau fracture or a knee strain or a pectoral tear.
Now some are wondering if he can turn back the clock. Next Gen Stats reports there has been a noticeable drop-off in performance the past two seasons from the two years that preceded that. He went from 69 quarterback pressures during 21 games in 2017 and ’18 to 58 pressures in 24 games the past two years. His pressure rate fell during that time from 10.1 to 7.1, per NGS, while his pass rush get-off rose from .76 seconds to .87.
If Watt is able to approach the form of his professional youth, it will be due to the work that was done on his mind as much as his body this offseason. Fact is, injuries have a way of tugging at a player’s psychological cape of invincibility, particularly when you’re prevented from doing the things that had contributed to your greatness. For Watt, that was reflected in his training.
The Texans’ medical staff took a more hands-on approach following his injuries, so much so that he eventually stopped spending offseasons with Brad Arnett, the personal trainer Watt had worked with since he was a teenager. The two remained in touch, but the bulk of his rehab/training was overseen by the team, and it was much more conservative than what he was accustomed to doing — something that might have been necessary, but also a reality that robbed him of the fearlessness that helped make him great.
“Every offseason, there has been trainers and doctors telling you, ‘Hey, you have to be conservative here, you have to take it easy here; you can’t do this, you can’t do that; you can only do this, you can only do that,’ ” Watt told NFL.com after a recent practice. “It gets to a point where, yes, I can go out there and play, but if I can’t train the way I need to train and practice the way I need to practice, then I’m not going to be the player I need to be.”
Dissatisfied with that, Watt made the decision to go back to his old ways. The process began in the middle of last season, when he would do some of his old exercises and send video to Arnett for the trainer to critique. And it intensified immediately after the season, when he returned to his home state of Wisconsin to work with Arnett full time, Monday to Friday, for six months.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go, I’m going to do it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but we’re going to do it,’ ” Watt said. “I don’t want to go out on the field and be half the player I’m supposed to be or be a conservative version of what I’m supposed to be; I need to be who I’m supposed to be, and if I can’t, I can’t.”
The sessions were about rebuilding Watt from both a psychological and physical standpoint. They had to break through the mental scar tissue that was holding him back. It doesn’t matter how much ability a player has; if he has doubts about cutting it loose, if he is focused on what might go wrong rather than what could go right, there is no chance of reaching the desired destination. Arnett noticed this once when asking Watt to doing a squat drill using resistance bands. There was a hesitancy on the player’s face, a look that, based on their many years together, caused Arnett to step in.
” ‘You’re not at risk; I want you to attack it,’ ” he recalled saying to Watt. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to stand over the top of you and breathe down your neck. You need to start to trust yourself again and realize you’re not broken.’ “
Watt admitted having had a previous incident on an air-pressure squat machine, and the idea of using resistance bands gave him pause. He didn’t trust that he would be OK. That’s an easy fix, said Arnett, who replaced the resistance bands with chains. Suddenly, Watt was Watt again.
“It was a matter of staying in tune with how he was feeling,” Arnett said. “There are things we have to be judicious and careful on, but the thing with J is, he’s a creature of habit, and him doing things that he feels is normal is a huge mental thing for him. It was a matter of getting him back to doing the things that make him tick, that make him feel normal, where he doesn’t feel broken, where he doesn’t feel like he’s being handled with a pair of white gloves on.”
Trust is a word commonly used when discussing Watt and the upcoming season — trust in himself, trust in his teammates, trust in his coaches. Defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who played in 174 games over 12 NFL seasons, is working to convince his star newcomer that less can be more. He wants to get Watt’s snap count in the 65 percent range, rather than 90 percent, but that entails convincing Watt that it is the best thing for both him and the team.
“I’ve told him, ‘You’ve got capable young guys, so let them eat some of the snaps,’ ” Buckner said. “It’s super hard for him because he’s always had to be the man, but I’ve told him that he’s got to be able to trust me that every guy in our room is going to have a role, and one might be for a guy to take 10 snaps off J.J. in the run game. Or to take four or five rushes early, so in the fourth quarter of games and the fourth quarter of the season, you are fresh. I had the same talk with Jason Pierre-Paul and even Calais Campbell in their primes. My goal is to make you just as productive with the least amount of work on your body. Now you can play 15 years rather than be broken down at the end of Year 12.”
The goal is to make it a win-win for Watt and the team. With standout edge rusher Chandler Jones as a running mate — barring a trade, which Jones has reportedly requested — he knows that opponents will be unable to consistently slide protections in his direction, otherwise Jones will feast. The two rank 1-2 in sacks since 2012, with Jones at 97 and Watt at 95.5, so there should be opportunities to make plays. Watt will become one of only four players since sacks became an official stat in 1982 to register at least 100 sacks with one team and later play for another team at age 32 or younger — and each of the previous three had at least one 10-sack season with their new clubs. More good news for the Cardinals: Two of those players, Reggie White and DeMarcus Ware, won Super Bowls after changing teams. Only Leslie O’Neal did not.
“He’s had some injuries and everyone thinks he’s done and he can’t do this or that,” Arnett said. “But he did some things with me this offseason that he was doing from a measurable standpoint when he was winning Defensive Player of the Year awards, like static standing 10-yard sprints, 20-yard sprints and things in the weight room.
“He’s at a point where he wants to go out and shock people and have them say, ‘Holy s—. This guy can still play. This whole thing wasn’t a fluke that Arizona gave him this money.’ He very much wants to prove that I can still play.”
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