HOUSTON — T.J. Yates figured he'd spend his rookie year with the Houston Texans on the sideline learning from veteran quarterback Matt Schaub.
That plan changed when Schaub and backup Matt Leinart had season-ending injuries.
Yates was thrust into the starting job and responded by guiding the Texans to their first playoff berth. Now the fifth-round pick will lead the franchise in the biggest game of its 10-year history, a first-round playoff matchup against Cincinnati on Saturday.
Yates bruised his left shoulder while being sacked on Houston's first series against Tennessee on Sunday and didn't play after that, but he said he's fine and will be ready to play against the Bengals.
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Though he's played just six NFL games, the 24-year-old Yates said he's been through so much that he feels he's been playing for a lot longer.
"It's been a long season," he said. "Even though I haven't been playing the entire season, I don't really feel like a rookie anymore. I've had a long time to get comfortable with this offense and comfortable with the teammates around me. Hopefully going into this playoff game, I don't have those rookie feelings anymore."
Star wide receiver Andre Johnson has been impressed with his quarterback's confidence, saying he never behaved like a rookie. Yates already had that confidence when he entered the huddle before his first NFL snap after Leinart broke his collarbone in the second quarter against Jacksonville.
"He came in the huddle at Jacksonville with a smile on his face," Johnson said shaking his head. "He was just like: 'Hey guys, let's go.' Most rookies would come in nervous and that's something you don't see in him. If he is nervous, he does a great job hiding it. I have a lot of confidence in his ability and what he can do."
Yates helped the Texans win that game at Jacksonville and one the next week against Atlanta, before rallying Houston from a 9-point deficit in the last six minutes for a 20-19 win over the Bengals. He found Kevin Walter on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 2 seconds left to give the Texans that thrilling win.
Yates thinks that having success against the Bengals in that game will boost the team's confidence as it prepares to face them again.
Houston has dropped three straight since then, including a 28-13 loss to Carolina in which Yates threw two interceptions. He said there have been a lot of difficulties in being thrown into this job, but the biggest one is that he's had to develop while the Texans were trying to make the playoffs.
"Going through the learning process while this team was on a run and having some of those growing pains at the wrong time was kind of hurtful to the team," he said. "Every single game that I've played, whether I played bad or good or we won or lost, I've been learning every week and learning from my mistakes and just trying to get better."
He's been helped by a cadre of veteran quarterbacks with decades of experience. Schaub and Leinart are always there if Yates needs help or pointers, and the two players backing up Yates — Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia — have combined to play in the NFL for 25 years. And then there's Houston Coach Gary Kubiak, a former quarterback.
"They know that I'm hearing it from all angles and they do a good job of not giving me too much information or too much advice," Yates said of Delhomme and Garcia. "But having them to go through the experiences with me, they can reflect on what they've done in the past and it helps me a lot."
Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison love Yates' study skills. They say he studies so much that he's starting to absorb game plans as quickly as someone who has been in the league for years. Another positive quality they've seen in him is his resilience.
"If something doesn't come right away for him, he keeps working at it," Dennison said. "You never have to correct him about the same thing twice. If you do it one time, then he understands."
He'll have a weapon he hasn't had for most of his starting tenure with Johnson expected to return to full speed this week after playing just seven games this season because of injuries to both hamstrings. Johnson played about 15 plays last week, but they didn't spend much time on the field together with Yates leaving early because of his injury.
The soft-spoken Johnson isn't the type to pester a quarterback about getting the ball. But he's hoping to make a big impact in this game after waiting nine seasons to reach the postseason and figures Yates is aware of that.
"T.J. knows where I'm at," Johnson said with a laugh when asked if he'll be in Yates' ear Saturday.
Yates is excited to have Johnson back not just for his playmaking abilities, but for how his presence on the field changes the way opposing defenses play the Texans.
Johnson has just 492 yards receiving with two scores after finishing with more than 1,200 yards receiving in each of the past three seasons, including a career-high 1,575 yards in 2008.
"I'll definitely know where 80 is the entire game," Yates said. "He's definitely someone I'll be looking for on Sunday."