J.J. Watt didn't go out a Super Bowl champion, yet the future first-ballot Hall of Famer left at the top of his game. Watt had two sacks and four pressures in his last NFL game, giving him 12.5 sacks in his final season -- which is the second-most by a player in his final year in league history (Jamir Miller had 13 for the 2001 Browns).
"I said I wanted to go out playing good ball and I'm playing good ball," Watt said after Sunday's loss to the San Francisco 49ers. "I know I still can, I'm just choosing not to, that's all."
Watt finished with 12.5 sacks, 25 quarterback hits, and 56 pressures in his final season. All those numbers were Watt's best since 2018, Watt's final First Team All-Pro season. In Watt's last four games, he finished with 13 pressures, six sacks, and nine quarterback hits -- truly leaving his best on the field.
"It's something I'll never forget. I'll be able to talk about that for however long I coach for," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "Just watching the professionalism, the effort and what he's done since he's been there. He never left the building really for two years. He trained there, he rehabbed last year and was two or three months ahead of schedule to come back and play on that playoff game. Then, he stayed there all year training again.
"His goal this year was to play an entire season. He hadn't done that for a few years, four years, I think. And then to come in and have 12.5 sacks and play the way he did and lead the way he did is just phenomenal. I can't say enough good things about him."
The 49ers treated Watt with class as he exited the field for the final time, as the opposing fans gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the field with two minutes to play. The ovation was all Watt could have asked for as the crowd chanted his name.
"I want to thank the 49ers. That was very classy, and their fans. You don't have to do that for an opposing player in your stadium when you're going to the playoffs, and I just appreciate them doing that," Watt said. "That was better than I could have expected it to be, certainly from that standpoint.
"Have my wife and son here, have my parents here. I wish the game would have gone differently in many ways, but I'm thankful and grateful, and I'll always remember it, that's for sure."
Watt won three Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied with Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald for the most in NFL history. He's earned five first-team All-Pro selections while leading the NFL in sacks twice (2012, 2015), tackles for loss three times (2012, 2014, 2015) and quarterback hits four times (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). The four-year stretch Watt had from 2012 through 2015 is one of the best for any pass rusher in NFL history -- and will get him enshrined in Canton one day.
Watt went out on top, playing at the high level that defined his excellent career.
"I was very upset with him all game because he's still unbelievable," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He was a problem throughout the game for us in the run game and the pass game, but for it to slow down there at the end, for him to have his moment where he could walk off, I think everyone in this country respects the hell out of him for what he's done on and off the field
and he's an all-time great."