J.J. Watt felt the love from Cardinals and high expectations to match
J.J. Watt made it clear that leaving the team he’s known for a decade to search for a “new beginning” was first about the ability to chase titles.
Joining the Arizona Cardinals wasn’t what most NFL fans had in mind, not with the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns — all 2020 playoff teams — reportedly pursuing him.
That’s one reason why the former Houston Texans All-Pro defensive lineman surprised Monday by committing to join the Cardinals on a two-year deal. A little secrecy over his wild free agency process added to the shock factor, too.
Still, when Watt was introduced as a Cardinal on Tuesday, the fact he’d join an 8-8 team that felt short of expectations last year was something he’d have to explain. Tied to that is his contract reportedly worth $31 million with $23 million guaranteed.
Watt, 32, probably believes the dollar amount is tied to his potential production, which is to say his expectations individually are sky-high.
“Whatever I have to do from a playing standpoint, it’s that: it’s dominating,” he said. “From a leadership standpoint, I’m coming in here to try and help teach these young guys, to help show them the way, to help be an example for them to follow in terms of work but also to cultivate the work they’re already doing … I’m here to help that.
“Make no mistake,” he added, “I’m also here to dominate on the field and help us win games.”
What drew Watt to Arizona?
It started with quarterback Kyler Murray entering this third season.
“He’s been a winner at every stage of his life, and that’s not a coincidence,” said Watt, who first met Murray at an awards banquet in 2014, during the Dallas-area native’s senior year in high school. “You’re a winner because of the way that you work and the aura that you give off and the talent you have. I think that he has all of those things.
“That’s part of the reason I’m here. I told him yesterday in a text, ‘I’m here because I believe in you.'”
Watt, who is from Wisconsin and spent his first 10 NFL seasons in Houston, played for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to begin his career with the Texans and got to know then-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph well. The current Cardinals defensive coordinator has a similar attacking 3-4 scheme.
It’s appealing for Watt to have that comfort level — and Joseph’s creativity. Watt mentioned linebacker Chandler Jones and safety Budda Baker, among others, drawing attention elsewhere.
“I’ll line up wherever I have to,” Watt said. “I’m very comfortable playing any position up and down the line. I’m sure I’ll move around a lot, just like I have in the past.”
Those Cardinals players, by the way, helped recruit Watt.
Early on after he and the Texans parted ways, DeAndre Hopkins, Watt’s former Houston teammate, hit Instagram with a PhotoShop of the pair embracing in Arizona uniforms.
The defensive end said the Cardinals pitched him “from all angles,” from owner Michael Bidwill down to Jones shooting Watt a direct message on Instagram promising to act as a personal chef if he landed with Arizona.
Watt kept the process secret as he whittled his free agency decision down to four or five teams.
Fearing that list would be leaked, Watt even had a friend buy t-shirts of the finalists as he prepared to own the announcement of what team he’d join.
“It’s a wild process. As a fan of sports in general I was excited to go through it just to see what free agency is like,” Watt said. “I think as a player and also just as a fan, you kind of always wonder what that’s actually like for the player. What’s it like when agents are calling you, what’s it like when teams are calling and offering. You have fan basses on social media and you have news reports and fake news reports.
“Then you start to consider all the different situations,” he added. “It’s a fascinating process.”
Situationally, it all came down to the football side of things. The Cardinals were appealing, as far from a contender as they might’ve appeared until the announcement dropped Monday with a tweet from Watt.
Watt will be getting paid handsomely and above expectations of most analysts, especially considering the NFL salary cap drop due to the pandemic. Though he’s only played more than half a season twice in the past five years, Watt recorded 56 tackles with five sacks, two forced fumbles, 45 quarterback pressures and an interception in 2020.
The defensive end believes he’s not a fading, injury-prone star who last had an All-Pro year in 2018. Watt was asked how much he’s got left in the tank.
“A lot,” he said bluntly. “A whole lot.”
As for how close the Cardinals are to chasing after Super Bowl rings, expectations are equally high. By giving him that cash, apparently Arizona believes so.
Watt does, too.
“Few months (away). You got to get to the season before you get to the playoffs, right?” he said. “We have one goal in mind and you don’t set your goal for the championship four, five, six years down the road.
“You set it for this year, so that’s the goal.”