All of a sudden, rookie T.J. Yates finds himself as the starting quarterback of the 8-3 Houston Texans.
A fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, Yates wasn't even in uniform for the Texans' first 10 games. He was inactive as the third quarterback, watching from the sideline behind Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.
Schaub suffered a season-ending injury in Week 10, moving Yates into the backup role. Leinart went down with a potentially season-ending collarbone injury in the second quarter on Sunday, moving Yates on to the field. This after the 24-year-old rookie had been running the scout team in practice until last week.
"It was kind of a whirlwind," Yates said after helping the Texans hang on for a 20-13 victory at Jacksonville. "I feel for Matt (Leinart). He was ready to play, and he was playing well. It's just an unfortunate situation for him and for the whole team. If there's one thing this team knows how to do, it's deal with adversity… I believe I'm ready to play and hopefully keep it moving."
If Monday X-rays reveal that Leinart has a broken collarbone, Yates will become the Texans' starter for the rest of the season. Sixth-year pro Kellen Clemens, signed last week, will be his backup. The Texans would likely sign another veteran, possibly one of the other four who worked out with Clemens last week, to give them a third quarterback.
They didn't have that luxury on Sunday. Clemens was inactive, leaving Yates as the Texans' only healthy quarterback for the final two-plus quarters. Tight end Owen Daniels, who last played quarterback as a redshirt freshman at Wisconsin, was Yates' emergency backup.
The Texans accordingly called an ultra-conservative game plan. Yates finished 8-of-15 for 70 yards and threw only nine passes after halftime as the Texans nursed a 20-10 lead.
"I thought he did a good job," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "To get put in that situation, that's his first time to have on an NFL uniform. We were down to him in the second half and didn't have a third (quarterback) suited up, so we needed to keep him upright. I thought he did a good job."
Yates showed that he's capable of more on his first series. Leinart was injured with 1:45 left in the first half, the Texans leading 14-10. Without even getting to warm up, Yates stepped in and completed three of his first four passes for 40 yards. That included a 24-yard pass to Daniels that led to a Texans field goal.
"Being in the huddle in practice is one thing," Daniels said. "Jumping into a two-minute drill in a close game is a totally different situation. He was really impressive when he came in – took command of the huddle, was really confident, made some really good throws, took what the defense was giving him. That's what you want out of a guy, especially after he doesn't really get a lot of reps in practice."
Right tackle Eric Winston said Yates "doesn't have wide eyes," even in tough situations. He expects the Texans to open up the playbook more with Yates next week.
"Listen, we were very simple because we had to be," Winston said. "We didn't have another quarterback, and we couldn't risk getting him hurt. That's why we did what we did. He can make a lot of these throws, he can do a lot of things, so I'm excited to see what he's going to do.
"One thing I've always believed in this league is you're going to get your chance one way or another. You're going to find out. You got drafted in the fifth round, and usually that chance happens when you don't know it's coming. I'm excited to see what he's going to do. I think he's going to make some throws. I think we're going to have to rally around him, and I think he's going to do a good job."
Yates ran a similar offense to the Texans' at North Carolina. He reminds Texans coaches a lot of Schaub because of his decision-making, accuracy and demeanor. He spent several months during the lockout working with Schaub and Dan Orlovsky in Houston. He has a strong arm and is more mobile than Schaub and Leinart.
What Yates obviously lacks is experience. His teammates are eager to help him pick up the slack, just like they have after every major injury that has faced the Texans this season.
"We're all going to have to step up and make plays," wide receiver Kevin Walter said. "(Yates) makes good decisions. He can throw the ball. He can throw all the routes. He's got good zip on it. He can scramble, too; he's fast. When things shut down, he can make first downs with his feet. So you know what, we're going to rally around him. He's going to make plays. We're all going to make plays. We've faced this before, so it's going to be exciting. I'm excited for him to have an opportunity to come and help us win to keep this thing rolling, and we all are, too.
"We've got to work as a team, and we will."