The side door swings open and cameramen rush into position as notebooks and iPhone recorders are readied below them, creating a scene that would fit into any hokey sports movie. “It’s just me,” the Houston Texans senior director of communications, Kevin Cooper, says, instantly slowing the entire room to a crawl.
No offense to Cooper, but no one’s waiting for him. This is the ritual postgame vigil for one J.J. Watt. Sure, the Texans lost their 2015 season opener in disheartening fashion, falling 27-20 to the Kansas City Chiefs while revealing that their quarterback situation is just as much of a hot mess as everyone feared it was. But Watt’s mega-star power only received another jolt.
In a week in which Houston mayor Annise Parker expressed appreciation for Watt’s shirtless, ab-flexing Men’s Health magazine cover, No. 99 added the helmet-less sack to his resume of viral feats. Watt finished the game against the Chiefs with two sacks and nine tackles overall (six behind the line of scrimmage), looming as dominant as ever in defeat.
All of this, however, hasn’t stopped a prominent New York writer from questioning Watt’s standing in the NFL. “Remind me again how J.J. Watt is the best player in the NFL,” New York Daily News reporter Frank Isola tweeted in the wake of the loss. From there, Isola’s Twitter mentions dissolved into dubious attempts to compare Watt to chronic NBA underachiever Carmelo Anthony and charges of East Coast bias.
Misguided blacklash might be the new reality for Houston’s national icon. In many ways, Watt is entering Peyton Manning‘s world. It’s one where nothing ever may be good enough for some, one where greatness is recognized but also routinely picked apart with a taxidermist’s glee. This phenomenon tends to trail the MVP talk, the ubiquitous commercials and the horde of national magazine covers, but it’s never too far behind.
Call it human nature or the product of the Internet’s Notice Me! News Cycle, it only figures to intensify if the largely unrealistic expectations for the Texans’ season are not met. How the 26-year-old Watt handles it will affect the narrative he’s woven for his career.
“I think that I can always find ways to help the team more,” Watt says. “So whatever I need to do, I’ll watch the film and figure it out and see what I can do to help us win.”
Even as a New York media figure like Isola questions Watt’s impact, regular folks marvel over his helmet-less takedown of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Left flat flooted and flailing by Watt, Chiefs right tackle Jah Reid reached up and knocked off Watt’s helmet in a desperate attempt to stop him.
It didn’t work.
“I think I’ve had a tackle without a helmet before, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a sack without a helmet before,” Watt says. “I mean, the guy’s hands were in my face and he knocked my helmet off. I’m not just going to stop playing.”
Watt’s teammates were nonplussed. “It didn’t surprise me,” cornerback Johnathan Joseph tells PaperCity. But America’s sports shows already have a season-long highlight that’s sure to be played in any future Watt montage.
National reporters who want to somehow blame Watt for the Texans’ quarterback failings are not likely to go away, though. Public-figure blacklash is a curious and often bizarre thing.
Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer is the one who threw an interception on his first pass of the season, mirroring the dubious trick former Texans quarterback Matt Schaub pulled off to start his own nightmarish 2014 campaign, of course. Later, Hoyer fumbled the ball away on a sack inside the 10-yard line. Those two plays alone gift-wrapped the Chiefs 14 points. There are saints who are less generous to their fellow man.
Hoyer has already ended up losing his job to Ryan Mallett as a result of that disastrous first start, but Watt’s reputation is the one on the line in many ways.
That’s life for Houston’s most recognizable public figure. It’s not all Final Four dates, Jimmy Kimmel appearances, funny pictures with Lionel Messi and mayor love.