WATT TO DO WITH J.J.

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

J.J. Watt
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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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