WATT TO DO WITH J.J.

Here's the definitive path to navigate J.J. Watt's future

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

The Houston Texans are a distant 50-1 longshot to win the Super Bowl this season with beloved, though aging and often-injured, superstar J.J. Watt holding a $17.5 million contract for 2021.

What to do after the season – or maybe before? A rational general manager would think, J.J. Watt is a Houston treasure. He is the most popular, most accomplished player ever to strap on a Texans helmet. While he spends more time on the injured list than the playing field in recent years, he is adored by fans in Houston. And when he does play, he is still effective. He still gets double and triple-teamed by opposing linemen.

The simple fact is, if general manger and head coach Bill O'Brien dares to trade or release Watt, wow, you think fans dislike O'Brien now? The entire stadium would become that guy who cursed O'Brien in the tunnel last year. Fans would boo O'Brien out of NRG Stadium during the national anthem. It would be a bad look for the Texans.

If you think that fans shook their heads when O'Brien made the Texans a laughingstock by trading DeAndre Hopkins, maybe the best receiver in the prime of his career, for a broken-down and overpaid running back and second-round draft pick … wow, wait for the blowback if O'Brien tries to unload J.J. Watt.

A rational general manager with a feel for the city would just swallow Watt's contract for 2021, which actually isn't that unreasonable given the current NFL pay scale. It's the final year of a 6-year, $100 million contract Watt signed in 2014. Looking back, Watt's been a bargain and worthy asset for the team. If Watt wants to continue playing, the Texans would be nuts not to re-sign him.

A cut-throat general manager who's won Super Bowls could release Watt, explain the reasons, take the p.r. hit, and get on with football. It's been done before. The 49'ers traded Joe Montana for a first-round pick, the Colts released Peyton Manning, Tom Brady left the Patriots as a free agent, and life went on.

But we're dealing with none of the above. O'Brien is not exactly a fan favorite here. His grouchy – and that's putting it mildly – demeanor and sour relationship with the media and fans will give him no free pass on dealing Watt away. Certainly not after the fans' furor after the Hopkins debacle. Fan support for the Texans would implode if O'Brien traded Watt for a bag of kicking tees, or unceremoniously released the greatest player in team history and an icon in Houston.

I've never seen one player hold all the cards against team management like Watt does. Sure he's on the downside of a Hall of Fame career, but $17.5 million isn't what it used to be. That may be below market value for a part-time superstar. Watt is still an effective pass rusher when he's healthy. He still gets double and triple-teamed by opposing linemen. He's also a leader in the locker room.

J.J. Watt is a Houston treasure, big man on campus, beloved by everybody. If he walked away today, his legacy is assured. He isn't on the Mount Rushmore of Houston athletes. He gets his own mountain. His accomplishments are etched in history: three time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Walter Payton Man of the Year, Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, NFL All-Decade Team and on and on.

More important, he is a Houston hero. He represents the best of who we are. If he retires today, he will have played his entire career in Houston. The first time I met Watt, he was a rookie, standing outside a Little League field, shaking hands with fans, signing autographs, raising money for a family whose parents were killed in a car crash that left two children handicapped. The next time I saw him, he was backstage at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, getting ready to play conga drums while Jimmy Buffett sang Margaritaville.

Nobody knows Watt's politics. If he registered as an independent and ran for mayor of Houston, he wins. Governor, he wins. President, who knows?

He has endorsement deals with Subway sandwiches, Ford trucks, Gatorade, Verizon cell phones, Reebok shoes, American Family Insurance and NRG Energy. He reportedly makes $7 million in endorsements. That's quarterback money. No other defensive player comes close to Watt's endorsement value. And his commercials won't stop after he retires. Look at Brett Favre and Joe Namath. Watt could leave football now, before the risk of getting his body more seriously injured and his brain scrambled, and not miss a beat of popularity.

Watt earned his acting chops next to legendary thespian Scott McClelland in HEB commercials. He's appeared in the Bad Moms movie, and the New Girl sitcom. He's hosted the CMT Music Awards and Saturday Night Live. Now he's the star of Tag on Fox. He's made his mother Connie and brothers T.J. and Derek commercial successes. J.J. Watt has achieved the greatest honor in celebritydom – he's got an ice cream named for him in the frozen food aisle.

More important, Watt is a humanitarian, the heart and soul of Houston. When a shooter murdered children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Watt invited some of the families onto the field before a Texans game to play catch and meet the team. When eight students and two teachers were killed in another senseless shooting at Santa Fe High School, Watt offered to pay for their funerals. When Hurricane Harvey flooded much of Houston, Watt raised $40 million to feed and rebuild the lives of victims. During one Halloween, Watt dressed up as Batman and visited kids at Texas Children's Hospital.

Yeah, Bill O'Brien, go ahead and trade or release J.J. Watt. See what happens.

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