The Case for T.J.: Why Yates Deserves to Be Texans' No. 2 QB

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Marco Torres, Houston Press
It's an unpopular opinion, but T.J. Yates did enough this preseason to keep his job.
If or when Case Keenum is named the No. 3 quarterback for the Texans, it should be noted that he didn't lose the race to be Matt Schaub's top backup. T.J. Yates won it.

In a Chronicle poll Thursday night, 86% of fans wanted Keenum to be named No. 2. It's understandable, given his days at the University of Houston, and the spark he gave the Houston offense at times over the past month.

Indeed, Keenum's strong performance -- 43-of-63 (68 percent), 482 yards (7.7 average), three touchdowns, zero interceptions and 106.7 quarterback rating -- would usually be enough to win a job. In fact, two weeks ago, I wrote here that Keenum should win it, based on his improvisation skills and overall upside.

From that end, little has changed. The only problem is that Yates has been even better, and it's time to give him his due.

For Yates, the final preseason numbers are staggering. A 70-percent completion percentage (35-of-50), 417 total yards (8.3 average), four touchdowns and no interceptions -- all for a quarterback rating of 121.8. Despite his lack of mobility relative to Keenum, Yates was only sacked one time.

From a physical standpoint, the 6-foot-4 Yates is the better player. There's a reason he was drafted (2011 5th round) and the generously listed 6-foot-1 Keenum wasn't. Quite simply, Yates is taller and has a bigger arm. He also has the advantage of NFL experience -- and in December and January, at that.

The question comes down to whether Keenum's mental skills -- i.e., his creativity and improvisation -- are far enough beyond Yates's to override the disadvantages in size, arm and experience. Though Yates was impressive as a rookie (rating of 80.7, guiding the Texans to four wins in seven tries, including one in the playoffs), his limited second-year experiences weren't good, and many around the team wondered if Yates had the mental spark to be a legitimate NFL quarterback and not merely a system caretaker.

In short, could Yates be a playmaker? So far, so good. The numbers Yates put up in August weren't merely "system" numbers. He made several plays on his own. The final touchdown in Thursday's 24-6 romp over the Cowboys -- a 21-yard strike to Andy Cruse -- was more than a typical crossing pattern. Yates was under some duress and Cruse only had about a half-step advantage on the slot corner. Yates had to fit the ball in an incredibly tight window to give Cruse the chance to catch it in stride and run after the catch. He did exactly that.

Yes, it came against third- and fourth-stringers for the Cowboys. That's fine, because he did plenty against first- and second-teamers, too. In the preseason opener in Minnesota, the sensational 34-yard touchdown lob to DeAndre Hopkins (in the second quarter) wasn't a scripted system play. Yates saw his ultra-talented rookie wideout in man coverage and threw a perfectly lofted pass that gave his guy a chance to make an athletic play. Again, mission accomplished.

Gary Kubiak believes competition is helping both Yates and Keenum.
"I told him part of my evaluation process was how could you handle all those young [receivers]," said coach Gary Kubiak, speaking of Yates. "And boy, did he get 'em all going. He's played extremely well."

But the finest Yates performance came in Week 3 against New Orleans, a game treated as the "dress rehearsal." Yates was nearly flawless in two third-quarter drives, executing beautiful playaction bootlegs that had Kubiak nodding in approval. One drive ended with a TD pass to Alec Lemon, while the other stopped on the one-foot line from a failed 4th-and-goal rush. Yates drove down the field with ease (7-of-9, 73 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) against New Orleans second-stringers, while Keenum didn't score on three fourth-quarter drives (10-of-14, 79 yards) against third-stringers.

It's well established that for an NFL quarterback, the third season is often where the biggest leap occurs. The Texans knew that and watched Yates closely over the past six weeks. They even gave him the threat of competition, eliminating any job security.

"The competition has made both of them a lot better," Kubiak said. "I want to keep them competitive all year long."

To his credit, Yates answered every question and then some. The 86% wanting Keenum aren't totally off-base, because in most cases, the performance Keenum gave would be enough to win the job in question.

Not this time.

It's not a death sentence for Keenum's career with the Texans, of course. Kubiak has hinted that the team will carry all three quarterbacks, thus preventing the loser of the Yates-Keenum battle from being claimed elsewhere.

Moreover, of Schaub's six seasons as a full-time quarterback, three have been shortened by injuries that limited him to 11 games or fewer. Schaub is not the most durable guy, and the backups are likely to get an opportunity. If Yates's strong play doesn't continue, Keenum will get his chance.

But Yates deserves it first. He has all the ingredients -- size, arm strength and accuracy, knowledge of Kubiak's system, big-game experience -- to be a viable quarterback in 2013. The only concerns concerned his creativity and overall moxie.

After six weeks of splitting repetitions and facing direct job competition from a player beloved by the Houston fanbase, Yates responded with the best showing of his young career. He looks ready, and the Texans will likely reward him in kind with the No. 2 job.

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