The NFL season hasn’t started but there’s already a standout contender for MVP. JJ Watt is undoubtedly one of the most popular players in the game.
The Houston Texans star is a man of the people, a reassuringly down to earth throwback in a sport polluted by bad boys, bling and cash rich nonsense.
He’s been at the franchise his entire career, memorably powering them into the playoffs in his first campaign. Injury restricted the defensive end to just three appearances last season though his personality and positivity remained ingrained in Houston.
And his popularity – and the levels of respect shown – have skyrocketed in the last few days following a brilliantly, wholehearted effort to help the people of his home state deal with the catastrophic hurricane which has destroyed thousands of lives with more pain to follow.
What started with a Twitter plea for $200,000 (Dh735,000) to assist those affected by Tropical Storm Harvey has snowballed into a multi-million dollar relief effort which continues to grow.
At the time of writing, Watt’s fundraising effort had surpassed the $17 million mark (Dh62.4m). The targets are changing all the time but now he wants to eclipse $20m (Dh73.4m).
Opting against using a national charity and instead bringing money in via Youcaring.com, a feefree crowdfunding site, just added to the honesty of his heartwarming efforts.
“The initial night, we broke the site, we couldn’t figure out how to get it back up and we somehow found the CEO’s phone number and called him at his house and got him out of bed,” Watt said. “He helped us fix the site and it got rolling.”
Yet this isn’t just the tale of another sports star putting his name to a relief effort. Watt has been hands on.
This is what we’ll be distributing today pic.twitter.com/YVyOC4jRaj
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) September 3, 2017
He may have a season opener to think about but that hasn’t stopped him helping arrange deliveries of desperately needed supplies to areas of Houston and beyond where over 100,000 homes have been affected by the worst storm ever to smash the United States. He’s helped organise and galvanise.
The category 4 storm delivered 50 inches of rain – that’s what the most flood-prone area in the country normally receives per year.
It will take weeks for the flood waters to disperse and experts predict it will be many months – years perhaps – before a city of over two million people is able to return to any semblance of normality.
President Donald Trump made an appearance at the weekend, assuring shattered, heartbroken residents everything will be fine.
Hollow words which cannot be compared to Watt’s gargantuan efforts, though Trump has dipped into his own pocket by donating $1m (Dh3.6m) while the federal costs to help restore the damage are predicted to creep close to an astonishing $8 billion (Dh29.4bn).
“We have about nine semi-trucks that are going to come to town. And we have those all filled with stocks, supplies, water, food, clothing, everything, ” said Watt of his plans.
“We want to make sure we get these people exactly what they need, so we can help rebuild as quickly as we can.”
It’s an unbelievable effort though the 28 year-old has terrifically admirable previous. When a penniless university student tweeted about being unable to buy new running shoes, Watt sent him a new pair.
Impromptu visits to sick children from the big guy with the even bigger heart have not gone unnoticed either. In this polluted modern world of social media backlashes and cynicism, many stars in the spotlight attempt to use bad news stories to enhance their own brand.
That, however, isn’t JJ Watt. “I just want to be that guy that parents can point to and say, ‘He does it the right way’,” he said. Watt , however, wasn’t alone in attempting to help ease the pain of this catastrophic natural disaster.
The Dallas Cowboys raised more than $2m (Dh7.3m) during a local 90-minute telethon which added to the sizeable donation made by franchise supremo Jerry Jones (left) to the Salvation Army.
The owners of teams such as the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots and New York Jets all weighed in along with Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. NBA superstars Steph Curry and James Harden have also contributed.
America – and its sporting community – have, for once, excelled themselves. Good on them. And good on JJ Watt.
How Jurgen Klinsmann must have smiled on Friday night. It was an awful 4-0 thumping at the hands of Costa Rica last November which saw the German axed by US Soccer.
Yet the impressive Ticos were at it again in an impressive 2-0 win to leave Bruce Arena sweating on reaching next summer’s World Cup.
That made it two home defeats in the push for Russia – the first time that’s happened in World Cup qualifying since 1958. And, furthermore, it’s added extra pressure on Klinsmann’s successor, Bruce Arena.
Group leaders Mexico have sealed their ticket so that means tomorrow’s match with Honduras, who moved level with the US after beating Trinidad and Tobago, is crucial with only three automatic spots up for grabs.
The US should still make it but Arena, in his second coming as national boss, seemed an uninspired choice at the time and as the dust settles on this latest setback, those feelings refuse to dissipate.
It appears large sections of the US media have washed over Maria Sharapova’s drug shame.
Host broadcasters ESPN have certainly adopted a ‘nothing to see here‘ policy with the Russian, who was banned for 15 months for using a prohibited substance yet remains the darling of their coverage.
With the likes of Serena Williams, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic all missing the final slam of the season, Sharapova’s return from the darkness has been their story so far.
She has been bigged up all week by the TV network, joining the US Tennis Association in the ranks of the sycophants after shamefully giving her a wildcard into the main draw when she should have been qualifying with everyone else.
The five-time major winner may remain a superstar, but ESPN’s fawning in particular has made for uneasy viewing.
“Maria is quicker around the court now than before she took 15 months off, “ said analyst Chris Evert. She wasn’t taking a very long holiday. Pass the sick bag please.
Seven. That’s how many occasions quarterbacks have been drafted one and two overall in the same NFL Draft in the league’s history.
Only one of those instances, when Jim Plunkett went first and Archie Manning was selected second in 1971, resulted in both players being relatively successful.
The most recent case is in its infancy, with the jury still out on 2016 draft classmates Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
The others that can safely be considered one-sided? Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer in 1993, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf in 1998, Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb in 1999, and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012.
The remaining connection is, like Goff and Wentz, in its early stages, but as it stands, 23-year-olds Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have the potential to be the best cases of quarterbacks drafted 1-2 to both thrive for their respective teams.
Two years after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tabbed Winston first and the Tennessee Titans grabbed Mariota second, the young phenoms have gone from rookies getting their feet wet to poised signal-callers on the verge of joining the elite at their position.
While they presumably yearn to be mentioned in the same breath as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, the first peer to be associated with each will likely always be the other. Even if it’s to their chagrin.
“He’s an amazing guy, a very talented player, a great quarterback. I think he’d agree with me in saying this: We’re not trying to compete against each other. We’re trying to compete against the top-tier quarterbacks in this league,” Winston said on ESPN in early August.
“If we’re just trying to focus on each other and how good one another is, we’re limiting ourselves.”
But the connection between the two doesn’t begin or end with the 2015 draft.
Both were studs in college and earned the Heisman Trophy, the highest individual honour in college football, with Winston winning the award in 2013 at Florida State and Mariota being chosen in 2014 at Oregon.
Winston accomplished one goal Mariota never did by leading the Seminoles to a BCS national championship in the same year, but it was the Ducks quarterback who was victorious in the only collegiate meeting between the two, handing Winston the lone loss of his career as a starter in the 2015 Rose Bowl.
Since entering the NFL, the two, aside from fittingly facing each other in their first regular season game as pros – Mariota’s Titans won 42- 14 – have been steadily developing in opposite conferences.
In their sophomore campaigns, both improved their team record (six wins to nine for Winston, three wins to eight for Mariota), touchdown passes (22 to 28 for Winston, 19 to 26 for Mariota) and passer rating (84.2 to 86.1 for Winston, 91.5 to 95.6 for Mariota).
Yet while their upward trajectories have aligned, their differing personalities and varying styles of play make them perfect contrasts. When it comes to leadership, Winston and Mariota couldn’t be more opposed in their approaches.
If it wasn’t widely known before, Winston’s massive personality has been recognised now with the Buccaneers featured on this summer’s Hard Knocks on HBO.
Winston appeared on episodes, which go behind the scenes during training camp, as a fun-loving, vocal and supportive team-mate who has earned the respect of the rest of the team, from incoming rookies to established veterans.
“He’s somebody who’s always been charismatic,” Greg Auman, Buccaneers beat writer for the Tampa Bay Times, told Sport360°.
“It’s hard to command authority as a 21-year-old when he came into the league. But I think he’s done that very well. This is his team. He’s very vocal leading them in the huddle and leading them in the locker room. I think that’s only going to get easier for him as he gets older.”
Of course, the flip side of that outspoken personality has also seen a history of immaturity, but Auman believes Hard Knocks has had a positive impact on Winston’s attitude.
“I think Jameis feels like having the cameras around all the time has made him want to behave, want to be a good team-mate, a good leader, a good player, a good person all the time,” Auman said.
While viewers have been tuning in every Sunday night at 22:00 (EST) to watch Winston and the Buccaneers, Mariota has been unassumingly toiling away at Titans training camp, no different than the 30 other teams in the league.
But going under the radar is nothing new for the introvert, whose quiet demeanour ironically stands out even more in a league full of gregarious personalities.
“He’s a guy that really led by example, didn’t do a lot of talking, but when he spoke, [his team-mates] listened,” Darnell Arceneaux, who coached Mariota during his senior year at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, told Sport360°.
“He was a friend to the starting receiver and he was a friend to the ninth receiver in our rotation. “He was the young man you hope your daughter brings home when she says, ‘Hey mom and dad this is my boyfriend’.”
On the field, the discrepancies between Winston and Mariota continue. Coming out of Florida State, Winston was well-versed in a prostyle offence and wielded an arm capable of making all the throws.
While that reputation has come to fruition in the NFL with Winston making countless highlight plays, so has his rep as a risk-taker.
His interceptions rose from 15 in his rookie year to 18 in 2016, though his interception rate actually dropped from 4.2 per cent to 3.3, as calculated by Football Outsiders.
Going into year three, the onus placed on Winston from head coach Dirk Koetter and his staff to limit turnovers is as high as ever.
“There’s definitely more of a focus on him being mindful of when it’s good to take risks and when it’s bad to take risks,” Auman said.
“And that’s going to be an on-going process.” Mariota, meanwhile, has expanded his game since coming out of Oregon, where he benefitted from playing in a spread offence, almost always in shotgun, with simplified reads.
In Tennessee, he’s been under centre more than ever, but adapted well to their “exotic smash-mouth” attack, which features a heavy dose of the run game while still taking advantage of Mariota’s abilities as a passer and runner.
In addition to their own progression, potential breakout seasons for both Winston and Mariota this year could be helped by new weapons in their respective arsenals.
Tampa Bay signed free agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson – giving Winston a deep threat that has been sorely missing – and drafted rookie tight end O.J. Howard in the first round.
Mariota hasn’t been blessed with the most talented receiving corps through his first two seasons, but that could change this year with the additions of wideout Eric Decker – one of the league’s best red zone threats – and rookie receiver Corey Davis, drafted fifth overall.
Along with more playmakers should come more wins, and more wins should result in a push for the playoffs, where elite quarterbacks truly separate themselves from the best of the rest.
If Winston and Mariota are sick of being compared to each other instead of the game’s greats, it appears their time to create distance from one another is coming sooner than later.
Breaking down the two quarterbacks in five key aspects and giving the edge to one in each, based on where they are at this point in their respective careers.
On the surface, Mariota appears to be the more accurate passer simply based on completion percentage. Diving deeper, however, reveals just how much of an edge he has when you look at his efficiency in high-leverage situations: third downs and in the red zone. Last season, Mariota completed 61.3 per cent of his third-down passes for a 105.9 passer rating, while in the red zone he has 33 TDs to no INTs since entering the league, the best ratio during that span.
Marcus Mariota has 33 TDs & 0 INTs in the red zone since entering the NFL in 2015. That’s the best TD/INT ratio during that span pic.twitter.com/Pnhmb3RTow
— Randall Liu (@RLiuNFL) August 22, 2017
It’s hard to expect any QB to be as effective under pressure, but that’s especially asking a lot for two young signal-callers. While Winston threw six INTs under pressure last season, compared to two by Mariota, he also was under pressure on 38.3 per cent of his dropbacks, ninth-most in the NFL. Mariota, meanwhile, was pressured only 29.6 per cent of the time and yet Winston still had a higher completion % (48.7 to 41.1) and a passer rating just 2.6 points lower (70.0 to 72.6).
It’s no secret this is where Winston’s weakness truly stands out. The Bucs cornerstone has a gunslinger mentality and known for trying to make difficult passes through tight windows, while Mariota has shown a penchant for living to fight another day more often. Sometimes it results in a jaw-dropping play for Winston, but many times it results in the other team getting the ball back. And while both QBs are elusive in and out of the pocket, they’ve had fumbling issues.
This is arguably the area with the least separation between the two. Winston had the edge last season in average air yards per attempt (4.77 to 4.65) and deep pass attempts (69), but Mariota had a better deep pass accuracy percentage (41.9 to 34.8) and deep pass passer rating (101.2 to 71.0). The script was flipped from their rookie seasons, when Winston was considerably better, but he regressed in 2016 while Mariota’s touch vastly improved.
67.8 percent of Jameis Winston’s passing yards came through the air in 2016 (as opposed to yards after catch), most in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/ng2jvDjhXF
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 9, 2017
Obviously, context matters when comparing quarterbacks. Winston has arguably had better top-end weapons, namely Mike Evans, but Mariota has had a significantly better offensive line and running game to protect him. Both the Bucs and Titans bolstered their offences this offseason, with Tampa Bay adding speedster DeSean Jackson and rookie top prospect O.J. Howard, while Tennessee drafted wide receiver Corey Davis and signed wideout Eric Decker.
While progress, as slow as it’s been, is being made, the NFL still has a long way to go before the message behind the national anthem protests really hits home.
Seth DeValve just did his part to further the conversation, going further than any known white NFL player before him was willing to go.
The Cleveland Browns tight end showed solidarity with 11 of his teammates when he knelt in prayer during the national anthem before the preseason meeting with the New York Giants on Monday.
It was a breakthrough for a movement started by Colin Kaepernick a year ago and continued by players like Seattle’s Michael Bennett and Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch this season.
As encouraging as it was to see the Browns stage the largest anthem gesture yet, the most profound aspect was DeValve’s involvement.
There’s a reason why Bennett last week said he would like to see a white player follow suit during the anthem, because “you bring somebody who doesn’t really have to be a part of the conversation, making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a big jump”.
A day later, Philadelphia’s Chris Long – a white player – put his arm around Malcolm Jenkins, who raised his first during the anthem.
One day after that, Bennett’s white teammate Justin Britt stood next to him as he kneeled and put his arm on his shoulder.
Both gestures, by Long and Britt, were admirable. They were also half measures, done in a manner that showed support for their teammates – who are the ones opening themselves up to criticism and, in the wake of Kaepernick, possible unemployment – while remaining inoffensive to those who believe the anthem is too sacred for kneeling, sitting, or any other gesture they deem uncomfortable.
So, credit to Long and Britt because it’s certainly better than inaction, but DeValve went where they wouldn’t.
If you hadn’t heard of DeValve before now, you’re not the only one. He’s a second-year tight end who was drafted in the fourth round – not exactly bulletproof from being cut to avoid a distraction.
He also has an African American wife, Erica, which means he has stakes in the current social climate, for her and their future children.
It’s necessary for someone of DeValve’s skin colour to do what he did, but hopefully it will lead to other white players, who may have less personal reason to join in, to strengthen the cause.