HOUSTON — As the Houston Texans were upsetting Baltimore 25-13, defensive tackle J.J. Watt made his home in the Ravens’ backfield. Though double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed, he kept breaking through to harass quarterback Joe Flacco, who had his worst game of the season.
When the game ended, the media noted that Watt had “only one sack” and that he had none of his famous swatdowns. It was just an ordinary game for him.
That’s when it hit me how truly extraordinary he is. Even on a “bad” day, he hit the quarterback four times. There’s no way to know what effect that had, but you have to suspect it made Flacco jittery. The former Super Bowl winner completed 40 percent of his passes, averaging less than 4 yards a throw, with three interceptions.
Not to give Watt all the credit. The Texans’ secondary played a magnificent game. And defensive coordinator Romeo Crenel clearly got the better of Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who was the head coach here last year.
Crenel kept Flacco off balance with blitzing from numerous directions. Most of the time he let Watt choose where to line up, so he could pick on the weakest links in the opposing offensive line. In the Ravens’ case, there’s not much weakness there. They have one of the top O-lines in the National Football League, and Watt tore it apart like your kids ripping open a Christmas present.
When you take a close look at his statistical performance this season, it’s difficult to see how anyone else at any position is more valuable.
In 15 games he has accumulated 17 ½ sacks. This is unprecedented for a player who’s rarely attacking from the edge with space around him to maneuver. He’s usually in the middle of the line, facing a guard who can also get help from a tackle and sometimes a tight end or fullback to join the barricade.
But sacks are a small part of what Watt does. More impressive is his knockdowns of 10 passes, which is more than most defensive backs have managed. His ability to soar and block the ball earned him the nickname – courtesy of Jon Gruden – “J.J. Swat.” He has one interception, which he returned 80 yards for a touchdown.
He also has forced three fumbles and recovered five, one of which he ran back 45 yards for a touchdown.
It all adds up to being the league’s Most Valuable Player. I was slow coming to this position, but I’m finally swayed by the accumulation of week after week of remarkable achievement.
Years ago, while covering the NFL beat for the Atlanta Journal, I developed a system of evaluating starting players and key reserves for each team. I talked with NFL scouting personnel who determined what a fumble, an interception, a sack are worth in terms of points per game. Despite all the data, it’s a subjective evaluation, but when you total up everyone’s numbers you arrive at the team’s total power rating.
Throughout this season I have kept increasing Watt’s score. At present, it breaks down something like this:
His run defense is worth about 1.5 points per game, meaning 1.5 better than the average starter at his position. He has 72 tackles and 13 tackles for losses – astonishing for a D-lineman. His closest competition here: Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh (46 tackles, 12 for loss) and the Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson (51, 10). Neither Suh nor Wilkerson has a fumble recovery, while Watt has 5.
Watt’s sack production is worth approximately 2.0 points per game. No NFL interior lineman approaches that figure. Only edge rushers Justin Houston (18 sacks for Kansas City) and Elvis Dumervil (17 for Baltimore) come close.
Watt’s pass breakups and interceptions are worth another 1.0 points per game. These are contributions you don’t expect at all from a defensive lineman. By himself he’s knocking 2.0 points off the opposing passer’s completion percentage.
Then there’s the category of quarterback hits. When I devised my evaluation metric, I didn’t take into account hits on the passer. Until recently it wasn’t an official stat. I still don’t know how to put a precise value on it, but it has to be worth something. Watt averages 3.2 hits on the QB every game. I figure that’s worth at least an additional 0.5 points, bringing his total defensive value to 5.0.
And that’s not giving him anything for a blocked field goal.
So much for his defense, which includes two touchdowns scored. He’s also by far the best tight end the Texans have. Used only in the red zone, he’s been targeted three times and has three TDs – acrobatic ones at that. Give him a half-point for his offense, and he gets a total score of 5.5 points per game Above Replacement Value.
It’s easier to evaluate quarterbacks. The NFL’s impossibly complex passer rating is actually quite informative, though it does not account for sacks, and you have to adjust the rating based on the quality of receivers, blockers and running backs.
I go along with the conventional wisdom that Aaron Rodgers is the Most Valuable Quarterback, at 5.0 points per game ARV, followed by Russell Wilson, 4.5.
Wilson is not the passer Rodgers is, but he does more as a runner, picking up key first downs and touchdowns and escaping the rush despite his leaky O-line. Like Rodgers, he gets a half point for leadership, which Watt – or any other non-QB – does not.
I currently rate Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers at 4.0, followed by Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Andrew Luck at 3.5, the same value as the top-rated running back, LeVeon Bell.
Even though Watt deserves to be MVP, it will be difficult to overcome the bias for quarterbacks. In the 57-year history of the award, only two defensive players, Minnesota’s Alan Page (1971) and Lawrence Taylor (1986) have been named MVP.
Page, an undersized but very quick defensive tackle, won when two Super Bowl-bound quarterbacks, Roger Staubach of Dallas and Bob Griese of Miami, were so equal in performance that voters couldn’t decide which was better, so they switched to a defender.
Taylor had a phenomenal year in 1986, amassing 20 ½ sacks as a 3-4 outside linebacker who also excelled in coverage. But he was not the force against the run that Watt is. He benefited from the fact that the league’s best quarterback, Joe Montana, had an injury-impaired season.
Watt isn’t getting much help from his coach, Bill O’Brien. At his Monday press conference, O’Brien brushed off the Watt-for-MVP campaign. “I could care less,” he said. “And so could J.J.”
It was disappointing grammar for a Brown graduate. “I could care less” makes no sense.
And it makes no sense to put so little value on the Most Valuable Player Award. Yes, O’Brien wants all focus on the Texans’ last game, at home vs. Jacksonville, and their miniscule shot at a playoff berth.
But let’s not let slip away this rare opportunity for a defensive player to win the sport’s greatest accolade.