Watt breaks NFL mark of childhood idol White

HOUSTON — Everybody has boyhood heroes. Some of us get to meet them. Not many get to surpass them.

That’s what happened to Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on Sunday. He raised his season totals to 15-1/2 sacks and 15 pass breakups, topping the 15 sacks and 13 pass breakups in 1991 by Reggie White, whose poster hung on the bedroom wall of a young Watt.

“Growing up idolizing Reggie White — growing up in Wisconsin as a Packers fan — to break his record is almost incomprehensible,” Watt said. “I almost can’t put into words — it means a lot to me.”

Watt, a 23-year-old from Pewaukee, Wis., is the only player in NFL history with 15 sacks and 15 pass breakups in a single season.

“Anytime you’re the only person to ever do something, it’s crazy, it’s wild. But as I’ve said all along, if you want to be the greatest, if you want to be the best, you have to be willing to want to do things that have never been done before,” Watt said.  “This is one of those things, but like I said all of the credit has to go to my teammates and coaches.  I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.”

It is not a stretch to say Watt is revolutionizing his position. At 6-foot-6 with a 37-inch vertical, Watt has some built-in mechanisms for batting down passes. But he’s hardly the first tall, athletic defensive end. He might be the first to put such an emphasis on swatting down passes at the line of scrimmage — on plays where he knows he’s blocked, he says he just steps back and watches the quarterback — and even if he’s not the first, he’s definitely the best.

The technique has become popular with his Texans’ teammates, and is starting to catch on elsewhere in the NFL, too.

Watt had a sack and two pass breakups in a win over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, part of a game in which the Texans forced six turnovers. With four games to play, he is a strong candidate for NFL MVP honors.

“I think we are looking at a guy that is as good of a defensive player that I have seen on the field,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said, “and continues to do it every week.”

It is worth mentioning that Watt is doing this as an end in a 3-4 defensive scheme. Traditionally, that position concedes a lot of statistical production to the edge-rushing linebackers. Ends who play in 3-4 defenses rarely lead their teams in sacks.

Which makes the comparison to White even more stark. When a young Watt was watching White work, he was watching him rush off the edge.  

“I watched a little bit more of his pass rush, but he was out on the edge and I do a little bit more inside, so we kind of play two different positions,” Watt said. “But, obviously, he’s one of, if not the best all-time, so you have to give him a lot of credit and it’s an honor to just be in the same sentence as him.”

Watt, in just his second NFL season, has a long way to go to catch Reggie White’s 198 career sacks. (Bruce Smith holds the NFL record with 200.) He is on pace, however, for 22 sacks this season, which would challenge Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record of 22.5.

“I’m a 23-year old kid just trying to have some fun, and that’s just what I’m doing out here,” Watt said. “It’s crazy all the records and this and that and being 11-1 — I know this doesn’t happen all the time in the NFL, and it definitely doesn’t happen so quick for everybody.  I am very appreciative and very humbled, and I’m not done. I’m very young, and I have a lot of great football ahead of me.”