Will J.J. Watt ever be the same? 'I'm just focused on today'

HOUSTON -- As the regular season approaches, J.J. Watt knows there are questions about his health and return to the football field. There's one he has been asked several times this offseason and during training camp.

Even if he can stay healthy, will the Houston Texans' three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year be able to play at the level he has in the past?

Though Watt has had plenty of time -- "the last two years were not fun," he said -- to think about that while he's spent the past 10 months working his way back from a broken leg, he said he hasn't given much thought to the answer to that question because "it doesn't help. It doesn't do anything for me."

"I'm just focused on today," he said. "I'm focused on tomorrow. I know what expectations I have for myself but ... any way I answer that question, I'm screwed. You want me to say, 'Yeah, it's going to be incredible,' then you're setting insane expectations. I say, 'No, I think I'm going to suck,' that doesn't bode too well for myself either.

"There's really no good way to answer that question. ... Through all my injuries, that's probably the biggest thing I've learned, is control what you can control. All I can control is today; workouts, practice, meetings, and then tomorrow I'll be able to control that."

Watt, who didn't play in the preseason opener against the Chiefs, has been a full participant in practices during training camp (with the occasional planned day off) and says there's "no doubt" he'll be playing in the season opener at the Patriots on Sept. 9 (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

He has played in just eight games in the past two seasons because of injuries. He played three games in 2016 before aggravating an injury that required a second back surgery in less than three months. Then last season, just as the Texans' star defensive end was starting to play more like the Watt of old, he broke his left leg in Week 5 against the Chiefs.

Those injury woes came after Watt put together a four-year stretch of dominance rivaling that of any defender in NFL history. From 2012 to '15, he was named first-team All-Pro four times, a Pro Bowler four times and NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times and led the league in sacks twice. However, his last sack came on Sept. 18, 2016 -- almost two years ago -- and if the Texans are to be contenders again, they need their star causing havoc.

Including Watt, the Texans' defense has several positions in which health is a question, especially along the front seven. If Watt, along with outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, can come back and stay healthy this season, Houston could have one of the best front sevens in the NFL. Along with nose tackle D.J. Reader, who has been touted as highly underrated by his teammates, the Texans have a talented group that should be able to improve from the injury-riddled defense that struggled a year ago under then-defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.

"I think I'm going to come out stronger because of it." Houston's J.J. Watt on dealing with injuries the past two seasons

"We want to be the defense we know we can be, and I think that last year -- anybody will tell you -- it wasn't what it should be," Watt said. "We're really excited about some of the additions we've made, Tyrann [Mathieu], getting Whitney [Mercilus] back from injury, getting myself back.

"But it's all talk until you do it. It all comes down to the first game and making sure we do it."

There's also another question Watt has gotten since his second season-ending injury in two years.

"Have there been days in recovery during which you feel you're ready to hang it up?" Watt was asked.

The 29-year-old acknowledged there have been times he has thought about whether he would even be able to come back from his latest injury.

"You're sitting there on your couch and you're like, 'How the hell am I going to get back to where I need to be?'" Watt said. "You're sitting there and you can't even do a leg raise, you can't even do anything and you're like, 'Is this possible?' Then you just take it one day at a time, step by step.

"I'm happy where I'm at, being able to look back on it now, and I'm thankful for the moments that I went through, but I think I'm going to come out stronger because of it. It's one of those things, people tell you, 'You're going to come out stronger on the other side of this injury. Minor setback for a major comeback.' You hear all of these things and you're like, 'Are you sure?' Then you get to the end and you're like, 'It is true.' It sucks, but it is true and I'm happy with where I'm at."

Now, Watt said he doesn't really think about his broken leg any more when he's out on the field.

Watt signed a six-year deal worth $100 million, with $30.88 million guaranteed in 2014 and is owed $15 million over each of the next two seasons, then $15.5 million in 2020 and $17 million in 2021. Though Watt has a big contract and the Texans must decide whether to commit money to Clowney, there's no reason to believe Houston would be interested in parting ways with Watt, even if he were to get injured again.

And it's because of what he's been through -- even before these trying past two years -- that Watt knows the path he has to take is focusing on now and not looking ahead.

"It doesn't help me at all to think about, 'I wonder if in December I can have this many sacks.' I mean, it doesn't matter, because if I don't take care of August, then I'm never going to get to December," Watt said. "So it's just one day at a time, one workout at a time, one practice at a time.

"That's how I got to be what I was in the first place. I mean, you don't get there by thinking ahead. Of course you have big dreams and you have big goals, but you accomplish those dreams and goals by working one day at a time."