J.J. Watt set to retire as all-time great after he ‘changed the game’ on, off the field
J.J. Watt had one wish for his last NFL game: to still be playing at a high level.
Heading into the Arizona Cardinals‘ season finale this weekend against the San Francisco 49ers, Watt accomplished his goal.
“It just feels like a good time,” Watt said, noting on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” that he’s known for a couple of months he would be retiring. “I want to leave while I’m playing good football, while I’m proud of the film I’m putting out. I want people to remember me for playing good ball, not for getting knocked on my ass.”
The 33-year-old Watt formally announced his decision last week. But he has shown this year that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank, leading the Cardinals with 10.5 sacks. Watt will close out his career Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, the only NFL stadium he has yet to play in during his 12-year professional career.
The future Hall of Famer is joined by Aaron Donald and Lawrence Taylor as the only three-time Defensive Player of the Year selections. Watt is No. 25 all time in sacks with 112.5, which he accomplished in just 150 games. Nicknamed J.J. “Swat” for his ability to knock down passes at the line of scrimmage, he has 69 pass knockdowns going into his final game.
Watt also currently leads all active players in tackles for loss with 192.
The former Texans superstar was especially dominant in 2014, leading the league in sacks (20.5) and tackles for loss (29.5), along with scoring three touchdowns as a tight end and returning an interception and forced fumble for a score. Watt earned his second Defensive Player of the Year nod that season and was runner-up for MVP.
“You just have to go watch his tape,” Niners tight end George Kittle said this week about Watt. “I remember we got to practice against the Houston Texans my second year in the league, and you got to see him up close. He sabotaged almost every play he was in on.
“He plays outside the scheme, which is really bad for some teams when players do that. But he was so good at it, he could completely leave his gap, go back over two gaps and still get back to his gap front side and make the tackle. There’s not a lot of guys who can do that, especially in the interior doing that stuff.”
But where does he rank among the greatest defensive linemen to play the game, like Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Howie Long?
Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater, who played against the aforementioned trio, said Watt is as talented as White — Watt’s boyhood idol — and any other star he went up against during his 20-year NFL career.
Slater added that Watt boasts White’s power and Long’s explosive get-off.
“This guy was special,” Slater told FOX Sports. “All you had to do was look at him play against a good offensive lineman of his day, and there were times where he would just literally take the guys apart.
“He had a combination of things that he did well. He was a big, rangy guy that looked like he just wanted to run through you all the time. But he had the ability to sidestep you, get his hands on you and run around you. And I like to think some of his footwork was trained. I like to think that he thought often about how many steps he would take if he got guys leaning forward here or there. He’s one of the best of his day.
“I had some sleepless nights back in my day the night before a big game facing guys like Reggie White and Mark Gastineau. That’s the kind of pressure these guys can put on you, and J.J. Watt fits right there with them.”
Not only does Slater admire Watt’s play on the field but also all the community service work he’s put in off the field. Watt won the league’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2018 for raising $37 million in 19 days for Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston.
“I was so proud of him and how he helped the people in Houston when we had the bad weather down there,” Slater said.
In 2011, Los Angeles Chargers defensive line coach Giff Smith was with the Buffalo Bills and evaluated Watt coming out of Wisconsin, which included taking the first-round prospect out for dinner during a pre-draft visit. Smith noted Watt was a guy who could knock down passes at the line of scrimmage but not necessarily a sack master upon entering the league in 2011 — he had just 11.5 sacks in two seasons with the Badgers.
Smith was subsequently impressed with how hard Watt worked on his craft and developed into one of the best pass-rushers in football.
“He’s definitely in the all-time list when you start talking about defensive linemen,” Smith said. “He kind of changed the game for how a 3-technique and a 5-technique plays, and how creative he was in his movement.
“He was just so powerful and quick for a big man, with long arms. There’s certain generational players that come along, and he’s one of them. When you talk about the great defensive linemen in the NFL game, you’re not getting off one hand when you start talking about where J.J. falls.”
Chargers defensive lineman Morgan Fox said Watt is one of the players he’s tried to emulate since breaking into the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Rams in 2016. Fox also got a chance to work daily with another all-time great in Donald and appreciates the mentorship both players provide to younger guys entering the league.
“In college, I had a really good teammate, and he told me there’s two guys you should watch — Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt,” Fox said. “Just watch what they do and learn. J.J. Watt is one of those guys synonymous with greatness in this league. Any team he’s been on, he’s the dude. He disrupts games.
“Being able to play at the same time as a guy like that and watch it has been awesome. … Being around AD (Donald), the way he plays and the way he works. And everyone has seen how hard J.J. works, it’s a testament to guys like that and Aaron in that they work harder than everybody in the room. They’re not just good, and then go home and hang out. They work harder. They stay later. They’re the ones out first. They watch more film. They lift more weights. So, having those guys in the league and being around a guy like Aaron, he raises your play to try and match his.
“And that in my eyes is how you measure greatness, how they raise the level of play of everyone around them.”
By that measure, and so many others, Watt is one of the greatest.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
Top stories from FOX Sports:
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more