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T.J. Watt’s historic 2021 is not getting the attention it deserves

In a league where breaking records transcends all, the NFL landscape seems to have already moved on.

Mikey Owens/NFL

Throughout this week, you’ve probably been made aware of the latest installment of ratings for Madden NFL 23. Every year, EA Sports seems to make some questionable decisions; that mantra has applied for 2022, especially with the Steelers.

While it raised eyebrows that Minkah Fitzpatrick was not touted as a top-10 safety or Najee Harris being upset with his 85 overall rating, what was particularly egregious was T.J. Watt’s rating: a 96. Not only was Watt ranked below Myles Garrett, but Garrett received a perfect 99, joining a rather prestigious club of superstars.

Watt’s snub could be yet another indictment of anti-Steelers bias or just an oversight. Regardless, it reinforces a trend that has grown more apparent throughout the NFL offseason: we have already transitioned away from Watt’s historic contributions last season.

After becoming the highest-paid player in league history, expectations were sky-high for the edge rusher in 2021, and he passed them with flying colors.

Watt posted a gaudy 22.5 sacks, tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record — one that had stood for 20 years. The mark had looked rather insurmountable after T.J.’s own brother, J.J., reached a maximum of 20.5 during two of the best years we’ve ever seen from a defensive end. Not only that, but Watt did so in just 15 games, though he played under 46% of defensive snaps in three of those contests.

Watt did more than just garner sacks, however. The Steeler tied for the lead in tackles for loss at 21 and had 39 quarterback hits, six more than the second-place finisher — Garrett. Per Pro Football Reference, Watt also collected 52 pressures, tied for tops in the NFL, and forced five fumbles.

After three years of being oh-so-close to claiming Defensive Player of the Year honors, not even an extraterrestrial entity (like that of Jordan Peele’s “Nope”) could stop Watt from finally winning the award. Watt became the first edge rusher to take home the DPOY trophy since Khalil Mack in 2016.

Cumulatively, Watt’s 2021 is one of the best years for a defensive player since the turn of the century, let alone the modern era. Of course, the Steeler had elite peers on his side of the ball in Aaron Donald, Micah Parsons, Garrett and others, but the OLB stood tall.

Why, then, do we not discuss Watt’s 2021 in the context of the great seasons in NFL history?

Part of the reason could be some element of fatigue regarding Watt-based discourse. Now that he finally won DPOY, Steelers fans may not feel as much of a need to ceaselessly lobby for their underappreciated dynamo. Further, since Watt has been the premier edge rusher in football for two or three years, celebrating his skill may seem redundant.

Another component to the lack of recognition may be the emergence of fellow pass-rushing studs. Watt ranked seventh in pass rush win rate last year behind breakouts like Maxx Crosby, Parsons and Rashan Gary. Though it may irk Pittsburgh faithful, Garrett’s greatness needs to be acknowledged, and Joey and Nick Bosa, Chandler Jones, Von Miller and more edge rushers continue to wreak havoc.

In contemporary times, sacks are viewed by some as a rather misleading statistic. Ambiguity exists regarding the attribution of half-sacks, while players can undeniably disrupt plays without actually bringing down the quarterback. Even then, it’s hard to argue against tangible results and legitimate impact plays — of which Watt mustered historic proportions.

When looking back on the 2021 campaign, we ogle at Cooper Kupp’s 145-catch, 1,947 receiving yard-season or Jonathan Taylor’s 1,811 rushing yard-, 18 rushing touchdown-stat line. Granted, both players burst onto the scene and cemented themselves as bonafide game-breakers for years to come.

Partially due to his prior status as an elite player, but also due to other factors, Watt’s 2021 does not necessarily seem to have carried over in the same light. Even in a league of perennial transition, it’s time to rewrite the narrative once and for all and give Watt the flowers he rightfully deserves for his otherworldly season.