The game wasn't over, but the party at Reliant Stadium was in full swing. The Texans had dominated every phase of play in a 43--13 beatdown of the Ravens on Oct. 21. On the bench a knot of Houston defenders laughed as nosetackle Shaun Cody cracked wise. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips walked past, grinning at the scene. But not everyone was smiling.
Off by himself, closer to the sideline, J.J. Watt watched intently as the Texans lined up on third-and-four with 1:15 left to play. Reserve running back Justin Forsett gashed the Ravens for seven yards off right guard, moving the chains and icing the game. But even in that moment of triumph Watt couldn't hide a look of mild disappointment as he unstrapped the protective brace on his left elbow and handed it to a trainer. Yes, the Texans had improved to an AFC-best 6--1, and they'd done it by spanking a team they'd never beaten in their 11-year history. But Watt, Houston's second-year defensive end, saw a streak snapped: For the first time this season he'd failed to sack the quarterback. He finished the game just as he'd started it, with 9½ quarterback takedowns.
No big deal, really. Watt, 23, vowed to start another streak when the Texans come off their bye against the Bills this Sunday. "I've still got nine games to get my sacks," he says. Besides, it's not as if Watt wasn't his usual disruptive self against Baltimore (and we're not just talking about the verbal depth charge he dropped on Ray Rice—"I've had burritos bigger than you!"—when the 5'8" running back shoved him after the whistle). Specifically, the 6'5" 295-pounder nicknamed J.J. Swat finished the game with two deflected passes, his ninth and 10th of the season, an absurdly high number for a down lineman. How absurd? Watt is tied for second in the league in passes defensed; every other player in the top 10 is a defensive back.
A bridge abutment against the run and a dervish rushing the passer, Watt would be exceptional even if he hadn't spent his brief pro career slapping away passes like King Kong batting down biplanes. Those deflections are partly the result of the hand-eye coordination he honed in youth hockey in Pewaukee, Wis. Playing for an elite travel team, J.J. was a big center with goal scorer's hands. His father, John, remembers a tournament in Minneapolis when J.J. was 13: On four consecutive face-offs in the opposing team's zone, Watt slid the puck between the other player's legs and ripped a shot on goal. The first three were saved, each stop resulting in another face-off. The fourth time J.J. scored. "The officials on the ice were laughing," recalls John. "They'd never seen anything like it."
It's been a while since the NFL last saw the likes of Watt, who has tended to bogart the Texans' defensive highlights. In Houston's two-game postseason run last January, its first appearance in the playoffs, he had 3½ sacks and a phenomenal 29-yard interception return for a touchdown. This year his 34 tackles, 7½ tackles for loss, 16 quarterback hits and two fumbles recovered all lead the team. But in the showdown with the Ravens, his teammates got in on the act. Fellow defensive end Antonio Smith, the self-styled Ninja Assassin, celebrated his 31st birthday by sacking quarterback Joe Flacco on successive snaps in the fourth quarter. On Baltimore's third series, Texans linebacker Connor Barwin earholed Flacco in the end zone for a sack that doubled as a safety. Barwin also knocked down a pass a la Watt, who quipped afterward, "I don't mind sharing. It's a lot of fun when everybody's in on the party."
That particular party served as both a butt-kicking and a torch-passing. The Texans gave the sort of virtuoso defensive performance that evoked memories of, well, the Ravens, known for fielding arguably the most suffocating, intimidating defense in the conference. Now, with Baltimore's glowering 13-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis out indefinitely with a torn right triceps, that distinction belongs to the Texans, who rank among the NFL's best in total defense at 283.0 yards per game yet wisely resist comparisons with the Ravens or the Steelers, the AFC's dominant defenses for more than a decade. "We need to do it consistently, year after year," says Smith, adding, "We're just trying to be the best defense in Texas."
Check. The 6--1 Texans lead the 3--4 Cowboys in most defensive categories (page 38), which must give at least some satisfaction to one former Dallas employee who was let go by the club two years ago.
On Nov. 30, 2010, the Houston Improv hosted a roast of Bum Phillips, the beloved former coach of the city's Oilers. In attendance that night was Bum's son, Wade, who recalls that he went "'cause I didn't have anything else to do."
Wade, the Cowboys' head coach for the previous three seasons, had been fired three weeks earlier by team owner Jerry Jones. Phillips really did have to go—Dallas was off to a 1--7 start—but his sacking was serendipitous for the Texans, who were enduring a spectacular collapse of their own.
The problem wasn't offense. Coach Gary Kubiak, whose aircraft-carrier flattop covers one of the keenest offensive minds in football, could move the ball. Texans wideout Andre Johnson had long been one of the game's most dangerous receivers. Quarterback Matt Schaub was an emerging star who had led the NFL in passing yards in 2009. In '10 it was Arian Foster's turn to blow up: The undrafted back out of Tennessee would lead the NFL in rushing with 1,616 yards.
But Houston's defense was a serial heartbreaker, finding new and imaginative ways to blow late leads as the Texans stumbled down the stretch. They would lose eight of their final 10 games in 2010, giving up an average of 30.4 points in the defeats. Which is why, when the unemployed Phillips walked into his old man's roast that November night, he got a savior's ovation. "People started clapping for him," says Houston Chronicle beat writer John McClain, who was there. "And Wade's looking over his shoulder thinking, Who are they clapping for?"
In an admirable display of patience and foresight, Texans owner Bob McNair didn't fire Kubiak despite strident calls from the fan base for his crewcut scalp. Instead, with McNair's encouragement, Kubiak brought on the genial, white-haired Phillips, who proceeded to make his boss look like a genius.
Phillips has several head-coaching stints on his résumé but is best known as a turnaround specialist for struggling defenses. He fixed Houston's problems in a hurry. The Texans went from 29th in the league in points allowed in 2010 to fourth last season. "I've done this a few times before," says the modest 65-year-old, who's been coordinator for the Saints, Eagles, Browns, Bills, Falcons and Chargers in a coaching career reaching back to 1969. "If I'm coming in, it usually means they didn't do so well the year before."
Broncos defensive great Karl Mecklenberg once made this instructive comparison between Phillips and the coordinator he replaced in Denver in 1989: "Joe Collier's defense was calculus, Wade's is algebra." Phillips explains it this way: "The game's complicated, there's no way around it. There are so many formations and motions and shifts. Our approach has always been to make the players feel like it's simple." They have to make adjustments, of course, but the system is digestible; players don't get stuck in their own heads. They fly to the ball.
Since his days working with Bum's defense on the Oilers in the '70s, Wade has run a 3--4, but with a twist. "In your basic 3--4 the three linemen play two-gap"—they're responsible for the gap on either side of the player across from them—"and that frees up the linebackers," he says. But those Oilers had a gap-toothed sack machine named Elvin Bethea, and Bum and Wade quickly realized that forcing this future Hall of Famer to stay home and mind a 12-square-yard piece of turf was a criminal waste of his gifts.
"We said, 'We need to let him go,'" says Wade, who along with his father concocted an array of schemes and stunts that better allowed Bethea to get after the passer. Says Phillips succinctly, "If a player is good at something, you gotta let him do it." Through the years he's given that same license to top-shelf pass rushers such as Simon Fletcher, Bruce Smith, Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware. Watt has now been similarly unleashed.
Five games into last season, pass-rush specialist Mario Williams, the first pick in the '06 draft, went down with a torn pectoral muscle. Picking up the slack was Barwin, a 2009 second-rounder out of Cincinnati, who had 11½ sacks, and Brooks Reed, a 2011 second-rounder from Arizona, who chipped in six more. Their production made it painless (and economical) to part company with Williams, who signed a $100 million free-agent deal with Buffalo. He hasn't been missed.
The same cannot be said for Barwin's distinctive haircut from last year. In 2011 he went with The Cosmo, an homage to Seinfeld's Kramer. But this year he showed up for two-a-days sporting what he calls The Koob—a facsimile of Kubiak's flattop. While discussing his hair, as well as Reed's spectacular, Fabio-like mane, Barwin had to raise his voice to be heard over the amplified singing of Cody and Smith, who stood in the middle of the room covering, among other numbers, "Before I Let You Go," by New Edition: Can I get a kiss, good niiiiight, bay-beee?
They weren't bad.
Asked about team chemistry, Barwin says, "It feels different, even from my first couple of seasons here, like you're almost playing on a college team again."
This band of fraternity brothers took a big hit against the Jets in Week 5, when inside linebacker Brian Cushing, the 2009 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, went down with a torn left ACL. The absence of Houston's co-captain and heartbeat on defense wasn't the only reason Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers carved up the Texans in their sole loss so far, a 42--24 rout in Week 6. But it didn't help. Filling the void at Cushing's Mike position is salty veteran Bradie James, who played for Phillips in Dallas and has been a kind of tutor for the Texans, explaining the finer points of Wade's 3--4. Up front, Cody and fellow nosetackle Earl Mitchell must continue eating blocks to keep the linebackers clean. And the most exciting young defensive player in the NFL will need to keep doing what he's been doing all season.
In a burst of irrational exuberance last summer, Phillips predicted that Watt would earn "a bust in the Hall of Fame." It seemed irrational at the time, anyway. How on earth did an athlete this gifted fall through the cracks and end up at Central Michigan?
The summer of 2006, before his senior season at Pewaukee High, Watt came down with mononucleosis and couldn't attend the football camps at which college coaches often make scholarship offers. His recruitment turned into a Gong Show: The same weekend that Central Michigan tendered an offer, the school's young, ambitious head coach—a guy by the name of Brian Kelly—took the job at Cincinnati. Watt decommitted, then committed to Minnesota ... whose coach, Glen Mason, was fired shortly thereafter. Watt recommitted to Central Michigan, where he was told midway through his freshman season that he'd be moving from tight end to offensive tackle the following season.
There would be no following season for Watt at Central Michigan. During Christmas break he surprised his parents by informing them that he wanted to transfer. He'd been invited to walk on at Wisconsin, whose head man, Bret Bielema, had told him bluntly, "No guarantees."
Watt struck a deal with his parents: If he didn't earn a scholarship at Wisconsin, he'd pay for the rest of his college education. "He was basically betting on himself," recalls his mother, Connie.
J.J. moved back home, spending his time working out and taking a light course load at UW-Waukesha. "But his days weren't full," says Connie, so she insisted he get a job. He did—delivering pizzas. This was the winter of 2007. One day when he was scheduled to work, an ice storm hit. Looking out the window, J.J. told his mother, "It's pretty bad." Perhaps he should stay home, to be on the safe side.
"That's not our work ethic," replied Connie. J.J. reported to the Pizza Hut and commenced deliveries. Two hours later he was on the phone with Connie. He'd spun off the road, taking out a mailbox and ending up in a ditch. A pair of tow trucks had slid off the road on their way to assist him. Could she please come get him?
Connie headed out into the storm, found her son and then hailed a man in a pickup, who towed J.J.'s car back onto the road. By this time, she recalls, "J.J. had eaten the pizzas he was supposed to deliver."
As the day drew near for J.J. to drive to Madison, his parents reminded him of the importance of first impressions: "Every day up there, every practice, every workout, has to be your Super Bowl." It will be, he promised.
He kept his word. The following December, Watt was named the Badgers' defensive scout team player of the year. During spring drills in 2008, Bielema offered him a scholarship. Watt started every game for two years, then entered the NFL draft.
Houston took him with the 11th pick in April 2011, prompting boos from some Texans fans at a televised draft party. They hadn't heard, or didn't care, that Bielema had described Watt as an athletic freak and the best defensive lineman he'd ever coached. The fans weren't impressed by Watt's 37-inch vertical jump or by his giant hands or by his 83-inch wingspan or by the fact that NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock had called him the best five-technique end he'd ever seen.
"I think [the boos] hurt him," recalls John Watt, "but we knew that was probably the best thing that could've happened." John and Connie were confident their son would use that negative reaction as rocket fuel, that he would make it his mission to turn the doubters into believers. He'd done that by the end of his rookie season, when, as Phillips says, he was playing as well as any defensive end in the NFL.
This season he's even better, as is Houston, a complete team at long last. Watt is a prime example of what can happen when you focus on your goals and treat every day, every practice, like the Super Bowl.
You could end up in the Super Bowl.
Watt tends to bogart the defense's highlights—he slaps away passes like King Kong batting down biplanes.
SI's football crew provides expanded midseason analysis—Don Banks on the major story lines and shocks, Kerry Byrne on the key stats, Chris Burke on RG3 (left) and the rookie crop, and more—all next week at SI.com/mag.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
BEND, THEN BREAK Barwin (98) applied the heat and defensive end Jared Crick the hammer on Flacco during Houston's statement win over the Ravens in Week 7.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
SPECIAL WEAPON Having honed his hand-eye coordination in hockey, Watt is among the league leaders in passes defensed—hardly your typical defensive end stat.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (SIGN)
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY (GRIFFIN)
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
RED-LINE FEVER Under Wade Phillips, a defensive crew that includes (from left) Barwin, James, Danieal Manning, Smith and Watt is looking suddenly Super.