The legendary defensive lineman shocked the NFL world when, as a free agent, he chose to go to a team no one expected.
And it happened well before J.J. Watt ever thought about being in the NFL.
Tuesday marked the anniversary of Reggie White making the eye-opening decision to join the Packers and leave the Eagles in free agency on April 6, 1993. Certainly, the shockwaves it created were even deeper than Watt's decision to come to the Cards – not only because White was one of the first real unrestricted free agents in a new-look NFL, but because White's former team, the Eagles, very much wanted to keep him. Watt, of course, had been released by the Texans to become a free agent.
But when it comes to Watt, the parallels are close enough, especially since Wisconsin-native Watt grew up idolizing White. And now, as Watt enters a new chapter in his career at age 32, he hopes it can echo what White did when he signed with the Packers – going into his age 32 season – and starred with his new team.
"It's kind of funny. I grew up in Wisconsin, and I saw Reggie White as a Green Bay Packer," Watt said on Adam Schefter’s podcast. "Most of my life, most of my career, I didn't even realize Reggie didn't start with Green Bay until he was 32 years old."
White didn't turn 32 until later in his first year with the Packers, while Watt turned 32 a couple of weeks ago. But in six seasons with the Packers, he had 68½ sacks and missed only one game. In his final year at Green Bay, White, at age 37, had 16 sacks.
A lofty bar to reach for Watt, who along with White are the only players in NFL with at least 17½ sacks in three different seasons. But, given that Watt's parents had a framed picture of White in their house near their eldest son's various accomplishments, it's one he's aiming for when he declared that he was in Arizona "to dominate."
"J and I were laughing about Reggie White," Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said during an appearance on the “Big Red Rage.” "Reggie White signed with Green Bay when he was, what 31, 32 years old and he had 60-plus sacks. This is not different. It's happened before. Very similar players, dominant inside rushers, guys who take care of themselves and freaks of nature. So hopefully he can have the same success Reggie had."
Joseph said that Watt will be pushing to play every snap and work every practice. They are good traits, but the defensive coordinator did say he'd like to loop in snaps for 25-year-old Zach Allen, and make sure Watt is at his best even if he isn't on the field every play.
Watt played more than 1,000 snaps for the Texans last year in 16 games, totaling only 5.0 sacks. But most of his snaps came as an edge rusher, a role he may not need to be in as much with the Cards. While he played much less as an interior pass rusher, it was there were he played the best, according to Pro Football Focus, still achieving an elite 90.1 grade inside last season.
In a league where Aaron Donald has led the way toward an inside-pocket push renaissance, it's a spot the Cardinals could use the help.
But Watt also made an impact on the Cardinals just by picking them, just as White had done when he chose the Packers.
"I don't know if (the parallel) is anything from a statistical standpoint other than for what this organization needed at this period of time," GM Steve Keim said. "I feel like J.J. Watt makes us a better football team, both on the field and internally, the way we carry ourselves in the community."
Only the passing of the next few years will determine if March 1 becomes the kind of date for the Cardinals that April 6 is now for the Packers.
"I only ever knew Reggie White from the age of 32 on and I've obviously seen him accomplish incredible things in his career," said Watt, who had just turned 4 when White chose to go to Green Bay. "I know exactly how my body feels right now and the way my workouts are going and how everything is going. So, I'm very excited for the future."