Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Beau Estes
PHOTOS: Getty Images, Jim Hawkins
magine this scenario. You are a record-setting college quarterback that just helped lead your team to an improbable bowl win. You are then drafted into the NFL and are starting games as a rookie. You then lead your young NFL franchise to their first playoff appearance. Top that all off with the fact that you lead this franchise to its first ever playoff win. You are on an all-time professional high.
Then, following all of this, following all of the records and touchdown passes and ESPN highlights—you sit. You don’t sit for a game or a month. You are forced back to the bench for the entire year and not because of something you did wrong. The franchise quarterback is healthy again and following your unprecedented performance, you are returned ingloriously to your role as backup. This is the story of T.J. Yates.
Following a foot injury in the 2011 season to starting quarterback Matt Schaub, Yates took the reins and the Texans kept chugging. Starting his first game against his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons, Yates threw a touchdown pass that helped his team win a franchise record six straight games.
The team would win a seventh straight game the next week in a playoff-clinching performance against its eventual playoff opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. In that game, Yates passed for 300 yards and two touchdowns, setting the stage for a playoff rematch.
“The first time we played them in the regular season and when we played them in the playoffs they were both very big games for this franchise,” Yates said. “The first game in the regular season is when we clinched the playoffs which was a huge moment for everybody in the organization.
“Then, having our first ever playoff game in Houston, I mean it was a really special time for everybody in the organization—all the guys that have been with the organization from the beginning. All the people in the front office that had been with the team and all the players that had been here for seven, eight, nine years it was really something special for them because they had been working so hard at it, so I was glad to be a part of it and help them out.”
That first ever playoff game in Houston was the Texans’ NFL playoff debut as a franchise. In the regular season their margin of victory over the Bengals was a single point, tight enough to ensure that the Texans would pay full attention to the lower-seeded Bengals. “It was a tough test because we saw them during the regular season,” says Yates, “and it is always hard to beat a team the second time around. I had a great team around me that year; a great offense, a great defense and I just had to put the ball in the right places and hand the ball off to the right guys and they took care of the rest.”
The Texans’ run was dashed in their next game by what many viewed to be the best defensive team in the league, the Baltimore Ravens, but not before T.J. Yates had made a solid impression with his team and also marked a remarkable first for UNC players in the NFL. Yates became the first Tar Heel player to ever start an NFL game at quarterback.
“When I first heard it I was also a little surprised,” he admits. “We’ve had some good quarterbacks to come through North Carolina. Ronald Curry went on to play in the league for a very long time just at another position. Darian Durant is a very successful quarterback in the CFL. He’s been playing there for many years—a franchise QB of the Roughriders. We’ve had a good amount of quarterbacks to come through so when I first heard that stat I was very surprised.”
Following this rush of rookie success, Yates saw the writing on the wall. It didn’t mean he had to like it, but he knew what was coming. His second season in the NFL never saw him return to the heights of his rookie year as playing time was scarce. His development halted as he spent more and more time on the bench, a transition that would frustrate even the most patient of performers.
“Last year was a little weird for me,” he explains. “Going from getting thrown in there and playing, then starting, then starting a playoff game, then winning a playoff game, losing championships and all that. It’s such an extreme high. My first season was crazy.
“So then, coming into my second year, everything stopped, everything was halted. You have to understand that is how the business goes sometimes. Matt is the franchise QB here. He has the big contract and is making all the money so you kind of have to take a backseat after making so much progress in your first year. It is hard to stay motivated as far as week-in and week-out as if you are going to be playing when you know you are not. That was something that I had to get accustomed to really quickly because of the change of pace and everything. The backup role is just something that is completely different.”
While the backup role may have been a step down from the spotlight cast upon him during his rookie year, it was certainly preferable to a 3rd string role in his third season. That was a possibility he faced during the preseason this year as the Texans’ wealth at quarterback was on full display. Yates faced a further challenge as his rival for the backup spot was a hometown hero, former Houston University quarterback Case Keenum. In the face of this pressure, Yates once again rose to the challenge, posting the Texans’ top QB Rating in the preseason as well as their highest completion percentage.
Announcing that Yates had earned the backup spot to start the year, Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said, “T.J. answered the bell. He got pushed and played as good as he’s played around here.”
For his part, Yates felt the competition activated some of the skills left dormant during his second season. “It was one of those things that Coach Kubiak had us kind of splitting reps just to get us all going,” he said, “and the Houston media absolutely love the hometown quarterback and it kind of became a full-fledged quarterback competition. It was good because instead of going through a sort of dull preseason like I had in my second year there was something to play for to get the juices flowing. It really does bring the best out in everybody involved with me and Case, and you could see that because we both had very productive preseasons. It helped us both grow as QBs and helped our offense really flow in the preseason so I think it not only helps our QBs out, but it helps our team out as well.”
Throughout his two-plus years in the NFL, Yates has kept a watchful eye on the squad where he first made his name on a national level—the University of North Carolina’s football team. Yates was setting records in Chapel Hill during the Butch Davis era, and the new coach, Larry Fedora, appears to be creating a family atmosphere and reaching out to former players.
“I’ve talked to Coach Fedora on the phone a couple of times and he’s got that program going in the right direction,” he said. “He’s definitely creating a buzz as far as the level of energy, the level of play and the speed of play. I know it’s a very exciting time. We’ve got an extremely high-powered offense that is very fun to watch. They have got a lot of great players coming through there. More and more there are Carolina players getting drafted every year and coming into the league which is exciting. I know that is going to help out with recruiting. I know I’m glued to the TV every time they are playing.”
A large part of Yates’s connection to the current team involves his former roommate, current UNC quarterback Bryn Renner. The two formed a close bond during their shared time on campus and on the football team and that bond continues today. Yates was the owner of 37 UNC passing records when he left the Tar Heel program, but if it were up to him, Renner would pass them all and it is with an eye towards ensuring the success of his successor at the Carolina QB position that he offers advice.
“When I was there we were always talking about stuff, whether it was game planning or anything on the field—I was always wanting to help him out,” Yates said. “Obviously, when I left and came here, we stayed in touch and whatever questions he has about anything off the field or on the field, we always talk about things like that. But, you know, he’s becoming his own player. He’s the leader of that team right now. He’s kind of creating his own path right now and I’m proud of the way he’s playing and how he’s handling himself out there right now ... I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do for the rest of the year.”
Yates has already spent one season as a backup for the Houston Texans. He is, without a doubt, fully invested in both the Houston community and the Texans as an organization. Still, Yates has a lingering professional dilemma that will manifest itself soon enough. During his entire tenure in Houston, Schaub has been the first-string quarterback when healthy. For most, a backup job in the NFL is, after all, a well-paying position in the NFL. Yates isn’t wired that way though. He’s already tasted success. He knows what it’s like to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He knows what it feels like to lead an NFL team to victory in the playoffs and surely, there are teams currently playing on Sunday that would prefer him to their current starter. Therein lies the dilemma.
“I definitely want to play,” he explains. “It’s nobody’s goal to come into the league and be a backup. Whatever opportunities come about in the next few years, I’m definitely going to weigh my options to see what comes because everybody wants to play whether it is here or anywhere else, but my ultimate dream is to play here in Houston. This is an unbelievable city with unbelievable fans, and an unbelievable organization and team as well. But, we’ll see what happens. We have a lot of good QB’s on the roster, but only one plays. We’ll see how it pans out, but my ultimate goal is to be a starter somewhere.”
For T.J. Yates, a self-described “Tar Heel for life,” these goals have a way of working themselves out so, for now, the Texans have a proven backup quarterback—a proven backup quarterback with ambition for more.