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Injuries are robbing us of J.J. Watt’s prime, and that’s a crime against football

Watt missing another year is awful in so many ways.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The look on J.J. Watt’s face when he exited Sunday Night Football in the first quarter left little doubt about the news that would follow. It was known early in the second half of the Texans’ loss to the Chiefs that Watt wouldn’t play again in 2017. The defensive end had surgery for a tibial plateau fracture, and he’s done for the year.

Watt was understandably upset about his season getting cut short again.

Injuries have derailed a player who used to never miss games.

Football’s a cruel game. Watt had offseason back surgery before 2016, and he’d re-injure his back by the end of September. He played in three games. This year, he appeared in five. He’ll have been active for exactly 25 percent of these two regular seasons. He missed a decent little playoff run last year and will miss another this year, assuming Deshaun Watson and a still-solid defense can get Houston there.

Watt’s last play of the 2017 season looked like a freak thing. He engaged with Kansas City offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz and crumbled as he tried to round the edge, with no contact to his lower body. Watt was still hunting for his first sack of the year when he went to the ground, and it turns out he’s never going to get it.

It’s extra sad because Watt used to be an ironman. From his drafting in 2011 through 2015, he started all 85 games the Texans played, including five in the playoffs. He racked up 79.5 sacks in that span, which is inner-circle Hall of Fame stuff.

His numbers don’t do justice to how good he was, either, because offenses were forced to feed him a steady buffet of double-teams (which he’d beat anyway). During Watt’s 2011-15 run, Houston finished in the top nine in scoring defense four times and in the top seven in total defense four times, too. All of that started with Watt. How many defenders were made better by the three-time Defensive Player of the Year’s presence?

There wasn’t a better football player in the world than pre-back injury Watt. One of the tragedies of him being hurt again is that it makes it less likely we’ll ever see that again.

Another tragedy is that Watt’s been an all-world human being this year, going to bat for his devastated city in an unprecedented way in its time of need. He raised $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief. I wish he could’ve gotten a sack for each million.

Watt’s awesome, but it’ll be a surprise if he ever gets all the way back.

He’s 28 this year, and it would’ve been quite a trick if Watt had been able to play anywhere approaching his 2011-15 caliber this year. He didn’t look like his old self, which is understandable for a guy in his late 20s coming off a debilitating back problem. These figured to be the latter years of Watt’s prime, before he got to the wrong side of 30 and would need to really defy Father Time to be his elite self.

NFL careers are short, and peaks are even shorter. Watt is an outrageous physical talent, but how many players who miss nearly two full seasons in their late 20s can return to be all of their dominant, pre-injury players? Watt might be a freak of nature, but the amount of rehab that’s been dumped in his lap might be overwhelming.

Then again, Watt’s Football Superman. Maybe he’ll do something impossible.