Any other year, you'd think this story would consume NFL fans. A third-string quarterback, never expected to see the field, finds himself starting for a 7-3 playoff contender after the two guys in front of him go down with injuries. He doesn't light the world on fire, but he wins enough games, going 3-2 before being knocked out early in the season's final game. His team, the Houston Texans win the AFC South, and easily win their first playoff game. And yet no one is talking about T.J. Yates.
In part, this is because all the quarterback talk in the postseason has focused on Tim Tebow. Like Yates, Tebow took over a team midseason and steered them to the playoffs. Like Yates, his arm isn't the engine of his team's success, which is built on the running game and defense. An unlike Yates, the entire wold has gone nuts about the guy.
In part, that's the situation. The Broncos were 1-4 before Tebow became the starter, and they won their first six games once he was. Some of it was Tebow himself, from his success at Florida to his displays of piety, that polarized the world at large, demanding they be divided into pro- and anti-Tebow camps. And most of it was ESPN, who frankly lost their damn minds over the guy.
Meanwhile, T.J. Yates was quietly putting up better numbers than Tebow. Half of the weeks the two played Yates had more yardage than Tebow and a better passing rating; in all but one he had a higher completion rate. Every week, they had the same result, wins until the final three losses to close out the seasons for both teams. Now with Tebow's elimination at the hands of the Patriots, for a few hours at least we can focus on the other new quarterback in the playoffs.
So how has T.J. Yates succeeded in the NFL? I, like most Carolina fans, did not expect him to become the first UNC alumnus to start under center in the NFL. Definitely not during his first three years at Chapel Hill, when he was lucky to escape collapsing offensive lines and the catcalls of fans. And not after a superb senior season propelled him to become a fifth round draft pick for the Houston Texans, who already had Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. In fact, the first inkling I had that Yates could succeed at the pro-level, if not in Houston, came from reading this Grantland article, which pointed out the common thread in the success of Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady:
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are quite possibly the greatest anti-blitz quarterbacks in the history of football. And when your team doesn't have one of those guys - or, in the case of the 2008 Patriots and the 2011 Colts, if they're injured - you're not so much worried about whether the backup can run the offense or learn the playbook or even hit the open receiver. You're worried about third-and-7 in the fourth quarter. How will he handle some convoluted blitz involving three defenders all attacking the same gap while the pass defenders aren't where he thought they'd be. To succeed under that kind of pressure, you need something more than arm strength, superior height, and even that coveted kind of on-the-fly fluid, athletic intelligence. Instead, you need, well, what is it exactly? What you're looking for in a quarterback can't be put into words. It's some brew of grit, studiousness, and instant pattern recognition that allows the great ones to put their teams in positions to succeed. There is no way to directly evaluate this.
I read this and thought, "If there's one advantage T.J. Yates has over other rookie quarterbacks, it's that he's been blitzed. A lot." Yates had no offensive line to speak of for his first few seasons at Carolina. By his senior year, his line had improved to adequate. John Shoop's offense, for as much frustration as it caused fans, was designed to get the ball to receivers early, because Yates was destined to finish the play on the turf. His eventual success against these types of pass rushes can be most easily seen comparing this and lat season's sacks allowed by UNC. With much of the same offensive line, the Heels went from 4th in the ACC in sacks allowed under Yates to 11th this year with a new quarterback.
The other key is how quickly Yates was able to pick up the Texans' system. They run an offense very similar to John Shoop's, and Yates spent three months after being drafted this summer learning it from Matt Schaub. And of course, there's the fact he's not asked to do too much. Houston has a pair of great runners in Arian Foster and Ben Tate, and an good receiving corps. But he's only thrown three interceptions to date. He may not be winning games on the strength of his arm alone, but he's captaining a team deeper into the NFL playoffs than any other young quarterback this year.
You can draw an interesting contrast with Blaine Gabbert, first round draft-pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Gabbert has been hammered this season, starting immediately and going 4-12 in his first year. But I think back to the Independence Bowl this year, watching Gabbert's replacement lead his team in destroying Yates' alma mater. Missouri's new quarterback, James Franklin, was completely reliant on his coaching staff to make any sort of adjustments to opposing defenses at the line, in a way Yates, and even Bryn Renner, never were. I didn't see much of Gabbert in college, but it's easy to see how that system could be much worse at preparing a quarterback for the pros than what Yates went through.
This, in turn, makes me wonder if T.J. Yates will be the last UNC quarterback to start in the pros, as well.