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The Texans will certainly have a busy and critical offseason with a couple big free agent decisions to make along with deciding what pieces are still needed to push the franchise deeper into the playoffs.
But no decision will be bigger than deciding how to deal with quarterback T.J. Yates going forward. The rookie fifth round draft pick who began the season as the third string quarterback certainly seems to have outgrown that role after the job he did when pressed into duty during the 12th game of the season.
There is no question that as soon as Matt Schaub is healthy enough to come back he returns as the starter. It isn’t so clear if veteran Matt Leinart deserves the same consideration for the No.2 job.
Yates certainly didn’t wow anyone in the eight games (including two playoff games) he played in but he did enough to prove he is worthy of backing up Schaub next season. The youngster who didn’t even dress the first 11 games of the season came in and won some big games for the Texans.
“You can definitely take the positives out of everything you do,” Yates said, “even after a tough loss, tough performance.”
Yates made the most every opportunity whether it turned out good or bad and left us all feeling like the Texans quarterback future is in good hands.
He came in during the Jacksonville game in which Leinart went down and made enough plays to allow the Texans to hold on for the win. But what he did the next two weeks was solidifying, leading the Texans to wins over Atlanta and Cincinnati to clinch the franchises’ first AFC South title and first playoff berth. And let’s not forget the way Yates played in the Texans first ever playoff game, doing more than enough to lead his team to a 31-10 victory over the Bengals in the wildcard round.
How many teams in the NFL can brag their young backup quarterback has experienced winning a playoff game from start to finish?
But of course we all saw enough of the bad to realize Yates isn’t quite ready yet. All of the positives seem negated by his apparent flameout during Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff loss to Baltimore where he threw three critical interceptions in a 20-13 loss.
Still there is enough in his overall body of work to be excited for the future. Yates, even without star receiver Andre Johnson for much of his time, proved to be a credible manager of the game who has enough of arm and enough athletic ability to give the offense a chance.
Maybe Leinart does, too. But we really can’t be sure with really just a half of football to show in the last two seasons. Right now we know more about Yates.
We know he has a lot of upside and to relegate him back to an inactive third string role would undo all the gains made during the end of the season.
“He got put in a very tough situation the last month and a half, but he handled it so well and it’s going to help him going forward, to grow as a player and pull from this experience he’s had,” Schaub said. “It’s going to help his career down the road.”
What would hurt his growth most is keeping Leinart around for the final year of his contract. Leinart wants and probably deserves a chance to go somewhere he can eventually be a starter but that place isn’t here. The former first round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals is slated to make $3 million next season and that money could be used to help sign other free agents.
Leinart’s spot will be put to even greater use because in addition to the mental reps, Yates will receive even more of the game preparation and thus more attention from head coach Gary Kubiak, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp.
If you were even just mildly impressed with what Yates was able to do this season without the benefit of OTAs and with a condensed preseason, you have to be excited about the growth we could see with the benefit a full offseason working with this coaching staff and his teammates.
The potential upside seems hard to ignore.
“He’s got a great start on his career. He played a lot of football this year,” Kubiak said. “You can see he is capable of doing what you have to do to be successful in this league. It will be interesting to see what he does with his experience, because it was a dang good one.”