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J.J. Watt Needs Practice Test, But Return To Games Grows Closer

Defensive end to get on field Thursday to try out injured shoulder

Defensive end J.J. Watt, here on the sideline before last weekend's game against the Seahawks, is hoping to return for the Cardinals' playoff game.
Defensive end J.J. Watt, here on the sideline before last weekend's game against the Seahawks, is hoping to return for the Cardinals' playoff game.

So, J.J. Watt was asked, would he be completing his amazing comeback this week from an obliterated shoulder to play for the Cardinals on Sunday.

"I will not be playing on Sunday," the veteran defensive end said bluntly.

The response was solid, although Watt quickly noted that of course his team doesn't play the Rams in a Wild Card playoff game until Monday. And while Watt is moving quickly in the direction of being available, both he and coach Kliff Kingsbury still aren't saying for sure what will happen.

"From a performance standpoint, I'm not going to put myself on the field if it's going to put my team in a worse situation," Watt said. "That's not even a question.

"I'm not going to step on the field if I am not able to do the things that I need to do to help us win games."

Watt has gone up against offensive linemen off to the side, in simulated plays, simulated drives, simulated halves of games. But he hasn't truly practiced, and that is scheduled to happen Thursday, when the Cards practice for the first time this week, "to put it into a full-blown team situation," he said.

Watt will wear a harness on his shoulder, something he has already worn for a couple of weeks.

"If you practice like it's a game, you don't have to wonder what the game is going to be like," Watt said. "If it feels good in practice, it'll feel good in the game."

Kingsbury, not surprisingly, was even less concrete. Watt hasn't officially practiced since Oct. 22 and had surgery Nov. 3. The early end of Watt's original prognosis was to be able to return in late February or early March, so to be coming back now is freak-of-nature-type stuff, and without precedent.

Because the Cardinals play on Monday, the Cardinals could in theory wait until Monday to activate him to the roster. No NFL roster moves can be made on Sundays.

"I don't have a feel either way," Kingsbury said. "It's been a while since he's been out there and I don't want to get ahead of ourselves."

It's a fair analysis, especially after Watt – who said he was devastated when he found out after the Texans win how bad the injuries were, in part because the Cardinals were 7-0 – read off the laundry list of his problems from his phone while doing his press conference Wednesday.

Watt ripped up his rotator cuff, labrum, shoulder joint capsule and infraspinatus muscle on his left side, and also dislocated his bicep tendon.

"My shoulder dislocated out the back and took everything with it on the way out," Watt said.

When Watt first got hurt and was given his 4-to-6 month recovery timetable, the first thing he did was count out the weeks on a calendar and consider "how the hell do I get back faster than that," Watt said.

There were setbacks and dark days, he acknowledged. And while everyone has difficult days in life, Watt says his felt a little darker because "you know you don't have that many days."

"You have no clue if you're going to make it happen or not, but you go to work," Watt said. "If it works it works, if it doesn't it doesn't. But I knew at that moment you were going to do everything you possibly can."

"I had to truly believe it every second for it to work," he added.

His teammates seemed to have believed. Fellow defensive lineman Zach Allen has been positive of Watt's return publicly to the point someone – Watt? – told him to stop talking about it. After Watt made a similar return to the playoffs with the Texans in 2019 (when he had a serious elbow injury), it's hard to bet against him.

It's a situation like that one – when the Texans fell behind and came back for a playoff victory – why Watt has done this.

"His routine and how he's gone about his rehab process has been nothing short of impressive," wide receiver Christian Kirk said. "We're excited to see him at the point he is."

Watt made clear the work he has done wasn't about reappearing to give an emotional lift to his teammates or be a beacon for fans' hopes. If those things are by-products, fine. But Watt wants to make an impact on the field.

"You can write whatever narrative you want about this comeback if I'm able to make it," Watt said. "The only thing that matters to me is being out there for my teammates, trying to help us win a game and get us to the end goal.

"Because that's what this is all about. I'm not doing all this work and trying to come back in half the time for no reason."

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