Will J.J. Watt ride off into retirement after latest injury? Should he?

Cameron Smith

It sounds ridiculous for a player who is universally acknowledged as one of the top-5 defensive players in the NFL, if not the best, but perhaps J.J. Watt should think about hanging it up. 

No, really. We're serious. Based on Watt's trajectory of injuries, his non-stop style of play and the fact that he's already wondered whether he should do something else, now might be the time. 

First, the case for the opposition: Watt is still technically in his physical prime. A 28-year-old beef and corn-fed and bred Wisconsin native, Watt is 6-foot-5, 290 pounds of fury attacking the edge. He has been one of the fastest and most agile and athletic defensive ends in the league throughout his tenure. He's the first player in NFL history to record two seasons with 20 or more sacks, and there's no obvious reason to believe that productivity wouldn't continue when he returns from his broken leg. 

The less than obvious reason to worry that it might not keep flowing is connected to Watt's health. To put it mildly, this isn't his first injury rodeo. 

In 2016, Watt had two back injuries, underwent a pair of surgeries for a herniated disk and played in just three games. A year earlier he played the entire season with a groin injury and fractured left hand before undergoing surgery for a sports hernia immediately after the Texans were eliminated in the AFC Wild Card playoffs. 

Now he's out with a broken leg. You can see the trend. Here's the thing: Watt could see the trend, too. 

In an April, 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Watt spoke cryptically about when he'll decide to retire, owing mainly to the very aggressive and physical style with which he plays and trains. In particular, he offered this quote: 

"I have no idea when it’s going to be, when I’ll retire," he said. "I’m not saying it’s not going to be two, three, four years. But I’m also not saying it’s going to be nine, 10, 11 years. I literally do not know the answer. What I do know is I’m going to continue to train my ass off. I’m going to continue to work to be the best player in the world, and whenever that doesn’t sound fun to me anymore, that’s when it’s over.
"I respect every guy that has walked away. I think every single guy in this league makes his own decision, and that’s perfectly fine. The reason I respect that and the reason I think every guy has his own way of dealing with things, is because in my personal opinion I know what I’m getting into. I know that I’m going out there and I know that I am going to get hit in the head, I know that’s part of football. That’s like a firefighter knowing he is going to go into a fire at some point. You know you are going to be put in danger’s way, and you accept that risk and you do it. I choose to continue doing it. That’s my choice. If I wanted to walk away, I could.
"But I love the competition. I love everything that comes along with competing on a day-to-day basis. I love my team. And I love what the game does for not only myself, but helping to inspire millions of people. I’m not at that point [of leaving the game]. I can’t say that I will never get to that point, but I know the risk going into it and I’m a grown man and I can make my own decisions. So I’m going to continue to play until I feel like that risk is too great."

That was less than two years ago, but also just eight regular season games ago; he was limited to three games in 2016 and fewer than five full contests in 2017. 

As the injuries continue to mount, Watt has to contend not only with the constant re-lighting of his own competitive drive, but also a clear and obvious physical frailty that comes with that drive; his body cannot continue to churn at the rate it does and keep Watt healthy. It can't happen. 

Which leads to an obvious question: Given the way Watt has very rationally approached his longevity in the past, can he now realistically judge whether his career is reaching its denouement? If so, is he wise enough — and strong enough — to walk away while he still can in one piece? 

That kind of wisdom is rare. It was found in Calvin Johnson and it was found in John Urschel, the Ravens lineman who retired at 26 to finish his PhD in physics at MIT

Watt earned every bit of the first three years of his $11.24 million rookie contract. He then signed a six-year, $100 million extension and has already been paid $58 million of that deal. He has an $800,000 luxury log cabin in the Wisconsin woods and more than enough cash rolling around to buy any other property he wants. He doesn't need more money, and he doesn't need more injuries. 

What he may still need is some sort of methadone that will help him back away from the constant adrenaline rush of competing at the highest level in the most physical professional sport known to man.

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