HOUSTON (AP) — J.J. Watt didn't just play for the Houston Texans, he was the Houston Texans.
The physical embodiment of a young franchise lacking much of an identity before the burly Wisconsin kid donned that No. 99 jersey, Watt wowed the football world with his defensive prowess.
Now he's gone, and a team already in the midst of unprecedented upheaval faces a future suddenly even more bleak.
“I have sat down with the McNair family and I have asked them for my release and we have mutually agreed to part ways at this time,” Watt said Friday in a video on social media.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year has spent his entire career with the Texans after being drafted 11th overall in 2011. The star defensive end had one year remaining on a six-year, $100 million contract.
“The connection I have with the people of Houston is special, and I will never take that for granted because I know how rare it is,” Watt said in the video. “I just want you to know that I love you and I appreciate you. I want to thank the McNair family for drafting me and giving me my first opportunity in the NFL. Thank you, Houston.”
Houston's franchise had been around for nine seasons before Watt's arrival, but had little success with one winning record and never reaching the postseason. Watt's presence helped change things immediately: Houston went 10-6 to win the AFC South in his rookie year. He led the Texans to their first playoff win that season when his interception for a touchdown put them on top for good in a 31-10 victory over the Bengals.
The Texans finished a franchise-best 12-4 the following year behind Watt's stellar season, reaching the playoffs again. They won the division six times in his Houston years, and as his resume grew, so did the image of the Texans.
“He's just everything that we really want to do here... epitomized," team owner Cal McNair said. “He was a great role model for the fans and teammates and to show people how to do things and do things the right way. So he was wonderful that way."
Along with his contributions on the field, Watt was lauded for his humanitarian efforts after raising more than $40 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in 2017.
“Simply put, there has been no person in the past decade who has made a greater impact on the Texans organization than J.J. Watt,” team co-founder and senior chair Janice McNair said.
Watt’s departure comes in an offseason in which the Texans have hired coach David Culley and general manager Nick Caserio to replace Bill O’Brien, who held both jobs and was fired after an 0-4 start in 2020. They're also facing uncertainty at quarterback because standou t Deshaun Watson requested a trade.
“Change is never easy, especially when it involves the ones you love," Cal McNair said. “J.J.’s impact on not only our organization, but the entire Houston community, is unlike any player in our franchise’s history. I told J.J. earlier this week that we will forever consider him a Texan. We take solace in knowing that this is not a goodbye but a ‘see you soon.’"
McNair was asked why he chose to release Watt instead of attempting to trade him and get something in return.
“We felt this did right by J.J.," Cal McNair said. “Not every decision is easy or easy to understand. We want to do what’s right for our players. We want to focus on bringing championships to Houston."
Watt was booed by Texans fans on draft night. It didn’t take him long to win over the fan base and become the most beloved Texan. The fearsome pass rusher was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, 2014 and 2015. He led the NFL in sacks and tackles for losses in 2012 (20½ and 39) and 2015 (17½ and 29).
Since his NFL debut in 2011, he leads the league in tackles for losses (172), quarterback hits (281), multi-sack games (26) and sack yards (713 1-2) and ranks second with a franchise-record 101 sacks. He also developed such a knack for using his huge hands to swat down passes at the line that he earned the nickname “J.J. Swatt.”
He is the only player in NFL history with 20 or more sacks and 10 or more passes defended in a single season, doing it in both 2012 and 2014. He's tied for fifth among defensive lineman in league history with six touchdowns in the regular season, including three TD catches.
The four-time Pro Bowler never missed a game until 2016, when a back injury ended his season. He broke his leg in the fifth game of 2017 and some wondered if he'd be able to return to form after two serious injuries in two years. Watt answered by finishing with 16 sacks in 2018 and earned All-Pro honors for the fifth time.
Watt, who turns 32 next month, played just eight regular-season games in 2019 after tearing a pectoral muscle, but returned to help the Texans in the playoffs. He played every game in 2020 and had five sacks, 52 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown. But he struggled dealing with the losses and said the season was the most difficult of his career as the Texans sank to 4-12 after winning the division the previous two years.
Now Watt's a free agent, and speculation is he’ll end up in Pittsburgh where his brothers T.J. and Derek Watt play. An offshore betting platform released odds for his next team with the Steelers as favorites.
Cal McNair has already thought about what it will be like seeing his team's most recognizable player in another uniform.
“It’ll be hard," he said, "but we’re always proud of J.J. and he’ll always be a Texan."