It’s T.J. time in Houston.
Pressed into action following injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, Yates led the Texans to their first postseason berth last Sunday. The east Cobb native and former Pope High School star also became the first rookie quarterback in at least 20 years to lead game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in each of his first two starts.
“Winning the last couple of games has been a wild experience,” Yates said, “just coming from where I was earlier in the season and all the stuff that’s happened to this team. It’s happened so fast, and how we’ve been able to keep it going, to keep winning. It’s been awesome.”
The Texans (10-3) play Carolina (4-9) on Sunday, with home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs within reach. And Yates has proven to his coaches and the team’s long-suffering fans that as long as he’s the quarterback, any goal seems possible.
Last week in Cincinnati, Houston trailed 19-10 in the fourth quarter before Yates engineered two 80-yard scoring drives in the final 5½ minutes. His 6-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Walter with two seconds left tied it, and Neil Rackers’ extra-point kick gave Houston a 20-19 victory.
“Well, obviously a winning performance,” Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. “You don’t, as a quarterback in this league, go 80 (yards) twice. He took us 80-plus yards for the field goal and he took us 80 to win the game only the road. That’s exceptional, what he did.”
A week earlier, Yates orchestrated a 19-play, 85-yard touchdown drive for the decisive score in the fourth quarter of a 17-10 win over Atlanta. He’s the first rookie to guide winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime of his first two starts since at least 1991, according to STATS LLC.
“It’s very impressive,” Walter said. “He’s solid, he’s confident. He doesn’t look like he gets rattled out there. Everybody’s looking at him and he’s saying the right things, doing the right things.”
Yates made his pro debut three weeks ago, when Leinart broke his left collarbone in the second quarter against Jacksonville. Schaub was already out for the season with a right Lisfranc fracture.
The 24-year-old Yates hasn’t been perfect. He threw an interception in Cincinnati. He’s lost two fumbles and been sacked eight times. But he’s also run 11 times for 43 yards, including a 17-yard scramble on Sunday to keep the winning drive alive.
Walter, in his ninth season, says that even in pressure situations, Yates has never wavered in the huddle.
“You can tell some people, quarterbacks or any position, you can tell if they’re nervous or not,” Walter said. “But for him, you can tell he’s confident. He’s like, ‘Let’s go, it doesn’t matter if I’m a rookie or not, I’m still going to go out there and perform. I have a job to do, just like everybody else.’”
Pro scouts were aware of Yates before the draft. He set virtually every significant school passing record in four years at North Carolina, running an offense that’s virtually identical to the one Kubiak and the Texans use.
In fact, Yates said he and former NFL and current Tar Heels offensive coordinator John Shoop broke down film of the Texans and Schaub in Chapel Hill.
“It’s so similar, so it was kind of cool to look at pro guys doing the exact same stuff,” Yates said. “You can compare footwork and progressions and you can kind of get a feel for how they go through it.”
Shoop said Yates studied more than just fundamentals.
“He worked his tail off, and got really good at the things that matter in playing quarterback,” Shoop said in a phone interview this week. “The things that matter are like, when you’re in the middle of a hurricane, finding the eye, the safe spot in the pocket. He developed a keen sense of keeping his eyes down the field and subtly avoiding the rush with his feet, things like that.”
Shoop realized Yates’ full potential during the 2010 opener against LSU.
The Tar Heels went into the game without 13 players, who were suspended due to the NCAA inquiry, and they trailed 30-10 at halftime. North Carolina’s defense stiffened in the second half, and Yates rallied the Tar Heels back with two touchdown passes in the final quarter. He drove his team to the 6-yard line in the last minute, but the game ended on consecutive incompletions.
Yates completed 28 of 46 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns in the 30-24 loss.
“From that point on, I was like, ‘Heck, I’ll call anything now,’ because I felt like he could make it work,” Shoop said. “It sure made me feel good as a coach.”
North Carolina finished 8-5 in 2010 despite continuous distractions, and Shoop said Yates was the one who held it all together.
“When all that was going on, T.J. was the one thing we could always count on,” Shoop said. “You knew T.J. was always going to do his job, and I think that became a model for everyone else to do theirs.”
Yates seems to have had the same effect on the Texans, who haven’t missed a step since he began taking the snaps.
“A lot of guys in his situation, being a rookie and having two guys in front of you, they wouldn’t be as prepared as he is,” star receiver Andre Johnson said. “It just says a lot about him and what he is as a player and what he thinks of his team and his teammates. That’s just big of him to make sure that he was ready to play when his time came.”