HOUSTON (AP) - J.J. Watt had a season for the ages to help the Houston Texans make a seven-game improvement from last year’s 2-14 record.
It wasn’t quite enough to get Houston to the playoffs, but plenty to leave the Texans encouraged entering the offseason.
“Nine and seven is progress, but progress isn’t good enough,” first-year coach Bill O’Brien said. “The mission here is to win. I think our players understand that and they know there is a lot more out there for us as we head into the future.”
Watt, who won NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, had the best season of his four-year career. He had 20 1/2 sacks to become the first player in NFL history with two seasons with 20 or more sacks after also making 20 1/2 in 2012.
But the defensive end’s sacks were only a small part of what Watt did in 2014. He finished with 78 tackles and led the league with 29 tackles for losses and 50 quarterback hits. He also forced four fumbles and swatted down 10 passes.
And those statistics don’t even address his scoring.
Watt had a fumble return and an interception return for a touchdown and surpassed the 20 sack plateau with a safety in Houston’s season-ending win over Jacksonville. His other scores came on offense, where the 6-foot-5, 289-pound Watt showed his huge hands weren’t just good for batting down passes by grabbing three touchdown receptions.
So where does O’Brien think Watt’s season ranks in NFL history?
“It’s got to be one of the best of all time,” O’Brien said.
His dominant season has him in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player, an award that hasn’t been won by a defensive player since Lawrence Taylor won it in 1986.
Watt insists he doesn’t think much about the possibility of becoming the third defensive player to be MVP.
“I left everything I had out there on that field trying to help my team win, doing whatever I could to be the best football player that I could be,” he said. “However they want to vote, whatever they want to write, they can write whatever they want, but I know that I left it all out there.”
The winner will be announced Jan. 31.
When pressed on what it would mean to him to be voted MVP, Watt said he prefers to think about how teammates, coaches and fans feel about him rather than worrying about awards.
“You can quantify greatness however you want, but for me it’s knowing that somebody’s in their living room watching the game that I’ve never met and they’ll never meet me, but they get a smile when I make a play,” Watt said. “And that’s one of the best feelings in the whole world.”
Some things to know as the Texans wrap up the season:
QUARTERBACK QUESTIONS: Houston started the season with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was benched after nine starts in favor of Ryan Mallett. But Mallett was injured after just two games and Fitzpatrick got his job back. He won the first two games after his return before breaking his leg in the third. Rookie Tom Savage replaced him in that game and was also injured. Houston signed Case Keenum and he started the last two games.
Mallett is a free agent and Fitzpatrick has one-year remaining on the deal he signed last offseason, but O’Brien wasn’t ready to say what he’ll do at the position.
JOHNSON’S FUTURE: Receiver Andre Johnson remains under contract with the Texans, but at 33 and with a hefty salary, there’s been speculation he might not be back with the team next year.
“I can still play the game. I know that,” Johnson said. “Whatever is meant to happen will happen and I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”
Johnson finished with 85 receptions for 936 yards.
TOUGH LUCK ROOKIE: Top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney missed most of his rookie season with injuries. The outside linebacker sat out the start of training camp because of sports hernia surgery before suffering a concussion late in camp. Then in Week 1, he injured his right knee and had arthroscopic surgery. He played three games after that, but never felt right and eventually had season-ending microfracture surgery earlier this month. The problem could cost him some time next year, too, with the recovery from the procedure expected to take up to nine months.
FOSTER’S YEAR: Running back Arian Foster rebounded from a back injury and surgery that caused him to miss the last eight games of 2013. Foster produced his fourth career 1,000-yard rushing season. He finished sixth in the NFL with 1,246 yards rushing despite missing three games with hamstring injuries.
LESSONS LEARNED: O’Brien, who joined the Texans after two seasons at Penn State, learned a lot in his first season as an NFL head coach. He’s looking for much more from himself in Year 2.
“The improvement starts with me,” he said. “I told our team: ‘There is a lot more out there and it starts with the head coach.’”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
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