Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt grimaces as he sacks Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the second half of their NFL football game in Houston September 30, 2012. (Reuters/RICHARD CARSON)
HOUSTON - J.J. Watt has a long list of personal statistical goals. And he's not sharing them with anybody.
"Because everybody would laugh," the Houston Texans defensive end told QMI Agency in an interview Friday.
The defensive player having the most impact in the NFL this season -- and, really, since late last year -- is at least willing to speak of his ambitions in general terms.
"I have goals. I have very, very big goals," he said. "I have them locked up in my house, and the reason I keep them locked up is people would laugh at me if they saw them, because I have very, very high expectations."
That's why Watt said he isn't surprised that, through Week 6, he has compiled unheard-of stats for an inside-positioned end in a 3-4 defence. Such as:
He leads the NFL in quarterback sacks, with 9.5.
He leads the NFL in tackles for loss, with 16.
He is the only defensive end or tackle with more than four pass knockdowns; Watt has eight.
By any standard except probably his own, this cocksure, fun-loving 23-year-old quickly has become a dominating force every time he steps on to a football field.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised, because I've put in a lot of hard work, I have a great defensive co-ordinator and have great teammates around me," Watt said. "So I'm not surprised. It's definitely a product of a lot of different factors, but when you work this hard I think you should expect big production."
\Watt hasn't even played in 25 NFL games yet. He'll hit that milestone Sunday, when his Texans play host to the Baltimore Ravens. Both teams are 5-1 and the winner will be viewed for at least one week as having the inside track to the Super Bowl in the AFC.
The Texans drafted Watt out of the University of Wisconsin a year ago April, with the 11th overall pick. Not many Texans fans were happy, as Watt was not a big-name college star.
He was having a good rookie season with the Texans, starting in defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips' attack 3-4. Late in the year, though, something clicked.
"I think it wasn't until the last four games of the year that he really a became dominant player," Phillips told QMI Agency. "And I was excited about seeing him repeat that this year, and he has.
"He's playing tremendous football right now. Normally a guy cannot play that way every game but he has so far this year. In six games, and really in two playoff games last year -- he was tremendous. He has been playing at a very high level. We hope he keeps it up. I think he will."
After getting 5.5 sacks during the 2011 season, Watt indeed broke through as a high-impact defender in the playoffs. He racked up 3.5 sacks combined, in a 31-10 win over Cincinnati and a tough 20-13 loss in Baltimore.
Against the Bengals he leapt up and, rather than merely knock down an Andy Dalton pass, he picked it off and returned it 29 yards for a go-ahead score.
What switches did Watt flip in January to take his game to such a higher level?
"I was confident," he said Friday. "I just went out there and played -- let it loose. I think that's the biggest thing. The thing I've been doing this year is I let it loose. I'm very confident in my game."
That he hails from a tiny town in southern Wisconsin, Pewaukee, only adds to the charm of Watt's story.
He was a heck of an athlete there. In addition to being an all-state tight end and defensive end in football, he was an all-district baseball player, an all-county basketball player, and he won a state title in shot put.
Central Michigan University offered him a scholarship, but after a year there as a tight end he quit and returned home to Pewaukee, determined to become a star defender with the University of Wisconsin Badgers. By his senior year, 2010, he did.
Goals are something Watt does not take lightly. He apparently knows all the good sayings about them, too. For instance, if you begin to recite the one that begins, "A goal without a plan is ..." he'll jump in and finish it for you.
" ... a wish. Nothing but a wish. Yeah, exactly. I love it. It's so true.
"So many people have these big dreams, and so many people want to do so many things, and talk about doing so many things. But they're not willing to put in the time and the effort. And that's what you have to be willing to do.
"I mean, if you're willing to rush the passer and you're willing to work your tail off to get there, you're going to get sacks. If you're willing to chase down a running back from the backside, or beat your man, then you're going to get TFLs (tackles for loss). If you're going to put your hands up, you're going to get batted balls ... People have this perception that 3-4 defensive ends can't make plays. You can make plays -- you just have to work extremely hard for them."
Work ethic. It's an overused sports expression. You can see that Watt takes pride in being a true exception. Phillips backs him on that point.
"Normally, rookies toward the end of the year start fading," Phillips said. "J.J. just did just the opposite. He started getting better and better."
Such a reputation has a drawback. And you can tell it doesn't sit well with Watt.
"Yeah, a lot of people peg me as a 'try-hard' guy. A lot of people say, 'Yeah, he might not be the most athletic, but he works hard.' But if you look at my combine numbers, and you look at what I do, I mean, I'm an athletic guy -- don't discount me. I love being known as a try-hard guy, but I hope people don't discount the athleticism."
Watt indeed is fast and elusive, not just powerful and relentless, for a 6-foot-5, 295-pound man. To think he has just brushed the surface of his abilities and is already dominating compels one to wonder just how good Watt can be.
Talk that he's a sure-fire future Hall of Famer already has begun.
"It's an honour, and I'm very humbled by it," Watt said. "I'm only six games into my second year, so the exciting part for me is I'm not anywhere near as good as I'm going to get.
"I can get better in pass rush, I can get better in run stopping, I can swat more balls. I mean, when I watch the film there are plays that I leave on the field. And so it's really exciting to know that I'm playing this well, but I also have so much more that I can do, and so much better that I can get."