Justin Britt was in a feisty mood Sunday, getting involved in confrontations with multiple Jacksonville Jaguars, a scrappy exchange prompted by the veteran center protecting a teammate on the ground: wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Britt is the traffic cop of the Texans’ offense, operating as a gritty presence in the middle.
After Britt shoved Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins away from Cooks while he was lying on the ground after a play, it set off a series of encounters. Defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris got in Britt's face, and linebacker Myles Jack went nose to nose with Britt before shoving him in his face. As Britt walked away from Jack, he was smiling and talking during the fourth quarter of a 37-21 season-opening victory at NRG Stadium that marked his first football game since he tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the 2019 season.
Ultimately, offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were assessed to Britt, Jack and Jaguars defensive tackle Adam Gotsis.
“Yeah, they were saying some not nice things, and I was just laughing at them, because on film there was like seven or eight guys headbutting me and pushing me,” Britt said. “I knew that I won the day. At that point, I knew they were tired of playing us, and that was just kind of how my day went.
"That was my goal, kind of, in a sick way. I don’t know, it felt right, and I don’t know why they threw a flag on me. I didn’t do anything. I was just laughing, I was just having fun. They were the ones that were out of control.”
A free agent for the entire season last year, going unsigned by the Green Bay Packers following a tryout, Britt now has a clean bill of health and an opportunity to prove he’s one of the top centers in the NFL again after signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Texans that included a $500,000 signing bonus, a $1.5 million base salary and an additional $1.2 million total in per-game active roster bonuses and incentive clauses.
To reach this point, Britt has worked tirelessly to regain the strength and flexibility in his knee and his confidence in the muscle memory it takes to operate at an elite level again. Britt has now started 87 of 88 career games played, lining up at center his previous four seasons in Seattle after initially playing right tackle and left guard.
When Britt got home from the game and talked with his wife, Alicia, he felt like he had been involved in a bar fight.
“I had the time of my life, honestly,” Britt said “That was probably the most fun I’ve had playing a football game in a while. It’s like two years of pent-up aggression, just being at home having to watch the game and not being on a team. Just to get out there and be able to hit, like I got home and walked in the house, somewhat gingerly, after a bar fight. My wife looks at me and she was like, ‘You hurting?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ but you’re like, ‘I embrace this. I love this feeling. I mean, Call me crazy, call me weird, but to have soreness to wake upthis morning, it being somewhat of a struggle to get out of bed.
“I missed it and every aspect of the game. The meetings, having to wake up early, the workouts, practicing, 100-degree heat and humidity, that might be new to me. But I missed the grind, I missed the struggle.”
When Texans running back Phillip Lindsay ran for a touchdown on a Wildcat formation play off a handoff from running back Mark Ingram, Lindsay recognized Britt by handing him the football to spike in the end zone.
“I missed someone scoring a touchdown and getting to celebrate,” Britt said. It was pretty cool that Phil gave me the ball to spike. I feel like that was symbolic to me, in my own selfish way. I had a lot of fun. It wasn’t my first, it may have been my best spike, but it wasn’t my first time.
“ I spiked the ball and then I let out a big yell. That play we worked on all week, and to be able to execute it that way and for it to happen exactly how we thought. It was just one of those moments, in the football world, I was the happiest I could be. I appreciate him letting me do that. I would have been fine if he spiked it, but I’ll definitely take it.”
Texans quarterback Tyrod Taylor passed for 291 yards and two touchdowns and was only sacked once. The Texans rushed for 160 yards and two scores.
First-year Texans coach David Culley received the game ball after his first win as a head coach.
“Our job is to open holes for the running backs,” Britt said. “Our job is to keep the quarterback clean and let him throw to the receivers. For me personally, there is something about Tyrod that makes me want to work harder and be right more. Just with his history in the NFL. I just want him to flourish, I want him to do good, I want him to have a great year, because if he has a great year, we have a great year.
“I’m not going to let people take shots on him and this and that. I think all of us upfront feel that way and I’ll feel that way for anybody that touches the football. It was awesome to get Coach Culley his first win in his first game as a head coach. He’s a guy who shows up in the building. He brings the enthusiasm in the way he leads us and the way he goes about it is the right way. To get him that win is pretty special for all of us.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128