Can inexperienced quarterbacks succeed in the playoffs? The Houston Texans and the T.J. Yates experiment

The Houston Texans are currently having the finest season in their nine-year existence. With an 8-3 record, Houston is almost certainly going to make the playoffs. But after losing quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in consecutive games, the Texans are down to their third string quarterback.

Doing a lot of this

That man is T.J. Yates, a rookie quarterback out of North Carolina. Yates did manage to torch LSU for over 400 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, one of three 400-yard performances by Yates in his senior season. But you can’t fault Texans fans if they’re a little concerned.

Houston signed Jake Delhomme this week, but he’s expected to serve as the primary backup and mentor. If the Texans go with Yates for the final five games of the season, will he be the most inexperienced quarterback to ever start a game in the playoffs?

Hardly. There have been 13 quarterbacks to start a playoff game with five or fewer career regular season starts. In fact, he’d only be the third rookie quarterback with to be inserted into his team’s lineup for the last five games of the season and then start in the playoffs. Perhaps more surprisingly, there have been five times since 1960 when a quarterback made only one regular season start in his entire career before being called on to start a playoff game. Going chronologically:

Tom Matte, 1965 vs. the Green Bay Packers

In 1965, the NFL was a 14-team league with two divisions. The playoffs were simple: the two division winners would play in the last championship game before the start of the Super Bowl era. Under Johnny Unitas, the Colts raced out to 7-1 record, with the only loss coming at Lambeau Field by a score of 20-17 in week two. Unitas missed the Colts’ ninth game with a back injury, but backup Gary Cuozzo (more on his reputation as the best backup quarterback in football here) led the Colts to victory and threw for five touchdowns in his absence. Unitas returned the next week and helped the Colts pick up another victory and one tie. By then, the 9-1-1 Colts held a 1.5 game lead on the 8-3 Packers with only three games left to play. But against the Bears, Stan Jones and Earl Leggett tore Unitas’ knee in a classic high-low hit that ended his season. The Colts offense was helpless against Chicago, losing the game 13-0.

The next week was a rematch against the Packers, and Green Bay not only beat the Colts but ended Cuozzo’s season with a separated shoulder. The Colts dropped to 9-3-1 while the Packers were 10-3 going into the final week of the regular season. Baltimore called on Tom Matte — the fifth-year running back who played quarterback at Ohio State — to guide the team. Baltimore also acquired veteran QB Ed Brown on waivers from Pittsburgh to prepare for the final game against the Rams. The history is a little ambiguous as to whether Brown or Matte started against Los Angeles, but both played as the Colts won 20-17. Matte didn’t complete a pass but carries 16 times for 99 yards. The next day, the Packers and 49ers game ended in a tie, leaving Green Bay and Baltimore tied atop the Western Division at 10-3-1 apiece.

Despite the head-to-head sweep, NFL rules at the time dictated a one-game playoff. Because Brown had not been on the Packers roster for the final two weeks of the season, he was ineligible for the post-season start. Matte was the only healthy “quarterback” on the Colts roster, and therefore was forced to start against the Packers in the playoff game. He put up Tebow-like numbers — 5/12 for 40 yards, 17 rushes for 57 yards — and led the Colts to overtime. Of course, it probably helped that Bart Starr was injured in the game’s first few minutes, and the game was knotted at 10 after regulation. A Don Chandler field goal for the Packers secured the win, setting up the first of three consecutive championships for Green Bay.

Ron Jaworski, 1975 vs. the St. Louis Cardinals

In 1973, the Rams spent their second-round pick on quarterback Ron Jaworski out of Youngstown State. “Jaws” sat on the bench for most of his first three seasons as the Rams were set at the position. In ’74, James “Shack” Harris guided L.A. to a 12-2 record and became the first black quarterback to make the Pro Bowl. In 1975 the Rams were having another stellar season – Los Angeles would make the playoffs every year from ’73 to ’80 — and Harris was again putting up big numbers for the Rams. The team was 10-2 when Harris was knocked out with a shoulder injury just three minutes in to a week 13 game against the Packers. Jaworski performed admirably off the bench — 14/24 for 174 yards, 0 TD and 1 INT — although the key to the Rams win was a ground game that produced 195 yards and 2 touchdowns while the defense held the Packers to just three points.

Jaworski was given his first start the following week — against the 12-1 Steelers. Fortunately for the Rams, the game didn’t mean anything to Pittsburgh, who had locked up the AFC Central and the conference’s best record. After three quarters, Jaws was just 1/6 for two yards; but he was 5 of 7 for 77 yards in the fourth quarter and ran five yards for the game-winning points in a 10-3 victory. Jaworski’s second NFL start would come in the playoffs against Don Coryell’s St. Louis Cardinals. Jaworski rushed for a five-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and then let his playmakers do the rest. Jim Hart threw pick-sixes to Jack Youngblood and Bill Simpson to put the Cards in a 21-0 hole just one minute in to the second quarter. Jaws went deep and hit Harold Jackson for a 66-yard touchdown later in the quarter, and the game was effectively out of hand. Lawrence McCutcheon erased any doubt about the game’s outcome by carrying 37 times for 202 yards.

Chuck Knox elected to start Harris in the NFC Championship Game against the Cowboys, as his shoulder was rumored to be near 100%. But Harris’ first pass was intercepted and his second fell incomplete, and the home crowd began booing for Jaworski. Knox obliged, but Jaws was only able to go 11/22 for 147 yards with 2 interceptions off the bench. Roger Staubach threw for 4 touchdowns, amd the Cowboys led 34-0 by the end of the third quarter. The quarterback situation got only more messy in ’76, as Harris and Jaworski both started games, but it was Pat Haden who led the team with seven starts. All three would land on their feet in post-playing days: Harris was the Vice President for Player Personnel for the Jaguars for much of the ’00s, Haden is now the USC Athletic Director, and Jaworski gets to hang out with Jon Gruden.

Gifford Nielsen, 1979 vs. the San Diego Chargers

Forgive Houston fans if they have a sense of Deja Blue; they’ve been through this before. In 1978, Dan Pastorini and Earl Campbell guided the Oilers to a 10-6 record and two road playoff victories before falling to the Steelers 34-5 at Three Rivers. In ’79, Campbell was even better, rushing for 1,697 yards and 19 touchdowns. Pastorini had started 15 games for the Oilers — backup Gifford Nielsen guided Houston to a victory in place of an injured Pastorini in week three — and again had Houston in the playoffs. In the wildcard game against Denver, Houston earned a victory but not without great cost. Both Pastorini and Campbell suffered groin injuries, while leading wide receiver Ken Burrough injured his back.

Nielsen, a third round pick out of BYU the year before, had started just one game in his pro career. In reserve duty against the Broncos, he threw just 4 passes and gained 9 yards while throwing an interception. With Pastorini, Campbell and Burrough out, the San Diego Chargers — coached by Don Coryell — were seven-to-eight point favorites at home. Nielsen performed admirably against San Diego — 10/19 for 111 yards with one TD and one INT — while a gimpy Rob Carpenter had a serviceable 67 yards on 18 rushes. But the star of the game was Vernon Perry. Perry had four interceptions of Dan Fouts and blocked a field goal — I spoke with author Jonathan Rand about Perry’s performance in this podcast — giving Houston one of the most unlikely upsets in NFL playoff history. You can read more about Perry’s game in Rand’s book here, but it goes down as one of the great performances by a lesser-known player in post-season history.

In the AFC Championship Game the following week — with Pastorini and Campbell back — Perry intercepted Terry Bradshaw and returned it 75 yards for the game’s first touchdown. The Steelers ultimately won the game 27-13, but it was not without controversy. The Steelers led 17-10 in the final seconds of the third quarter when Pastorini hit Mike Renfro for what looked like the game-tying touchdown (video here — worth watching for many reasons, including Bum Phillips’ outfit). The pass was ruled incomplete, Houston settled for a field goal, and Pittsburgh would finish the year by winning their second straight Super Bowl.

Doug Flutie, 1986 vs. the Washington Redskins

The Chicago Bears from 1984 to 1988 had as dominant a defensive run as any team in modern football history. Chicago finished first or second in yards allowed each season, while leading the league in points allowed three times and ranking third and fourth in the other two years. The Bears finished first against the run four times (coming in second in the remaining season) and ranked in the top three in net yards per pass attempt allowed in all five seasons. So when the 1986 Bears went 14-2, you can probably imagine that quarterback play was pretty low on the list of reasons why. The ’86 Bears actually allowed fewer points than their famed ’85 version, finishing first or second in practically every defensive category. At the time, the 187 points were the fewest ever allowed during a 16-game season. Five times the Bears would score 12 or 13 points, and they won every game.

Mike Tomczak (7-0), Jim McMahon (6-0) and Steve Fuller (0-2) all started multiple games for Chicago that season. McMahon went on injured reserve in mid-season with a shoulder injury; in week 15 against the Lions, Tomczak went down early in the game. Fuller’s ugly performance earlier in the year had relegated him to last on the depth chart, so Flutie was inserted into the game. He performed respectably off the bench, and Chicago won 16-13. Flutie — who had played in the USFL — received his first professional start in the NFL the following week against the Cowboys. Against Dallas, Flutie played only the first half as the Bears led 21-0 after two quarters. In 30 minutes of work, he went 8/14 for 152 yards and 2 touchdown passes, in addition to a 19-yard run. After the game, Coach Ditka said “The little guy is pretty special. He makes things happen. He is a winner. He is a great leader.”

The 14-2 Bears earned a bye but would give Flutie his second NFL start in Chicago’s first playoff game. This time the opponent was coached not by Don Coryell but instead by one of his disciples, Joe Gibbs. Washington jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but then Flutie hit Willie Gault for a 50-yard touchdown. A Mike Richardson interception put the Bears on the Washington 4-yard line, but three straight runs led to a field goal. A Flutie interception and a Walter Payton fumble led to Washington touchdowns in the second half, and the Redskins cruised to a 27-13 victory.

Flutie was traded to the Patriots in 1987, and stayed there for a couple of seasons before beginning an 8-year career in the CFL. In typically shocking Flutie fashion, he then returned to the NFL and played 8 seasons there with the Bills, Chargers and Patriots. But for a man who played professional football in three different leagues until he was 43, he’ll always be remembered first for what he did when he was a 22-year-old amateur.

Todd Marinovich, 1991 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs

Marinovich is probably most remembered for his failure to become a superstar despite being bred to be one. Marinovich set several high school quarterbacking records before heading to USC. As a redshirt freshman, Marinovich saw immediate success, guiding the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory. His numbers as a sophomore were disappointing, but he was selected by the Raiders with the 24th pick in the 1991 draft. Marinovich was the second quarterback selected, behind Dan McGwire and ahead of Brett Favre. Jay Schroeder would start the first 15 games of the 1991 season for Los Angeles. I’ll let Mike Sager take it from here:

The fifteenth week of the season, Todd made his first trip to New Orleans. After a long night of rum drinks in the Quarter, he ended up in bed with two stewardesses; he barely made it back for the pregame meal. The Superdome held seventy thousand screaming fans. “The noise was deafening. My head. I was in hell,” Todd remembers now. “I was barely able to make it through warm-ups. I was sweating profusely, trying not to vomit.”

Midway through the game, the Raiders’ first-string quarterback, Jay Schroeder, was hit simultaneously from both sides, injuring an ankle. “Coach Shell looks at me, like, Are you ready to go?” Todd recalls. “I shook him off like a pitcher on the mound. I was like, Are you f**king kidding me?”

Vince Evans instead entered the game, throwing three passes, completing none of them to his own team but mixing in a pick-six for good measure. The next week, with Schroeder still out, Marinovich was called on for his first start — indeed, the first game — of his career. Marinovich impressed, throwing for 243 yards and 3 touchdowns on 40 attempts in a losing effort at home against the Chiefs. The Raiders and Chiefs were locked into a playoff rematch, but the loss ensured that the game would be in Kansas City. While the Los Angeles defense performed admirably, Marinovich looked like a young quarterback with just one career game to his name. He finished the day 12 of 23 for 140 yards with 4 interceptions, in a 10-6 loss.

In Marinovich’s second regular season start — in week 3 of the 1992 season — Marinovich threw for 395 yards, setting the record that Cam Newton broke for most passing yards in a quarterback’s first two starts. But drug and alcohol abuse ended his NFL career shortly thereafter. In his post-playing days, Marinovich became a painter. Even if you can’t throw a spiral like Todd Marinovich, you can still buy his painting of what one should look like.

Other quarterbacks to start a playoff game after five or fewer regular season starts

Another USC QB, Paul McDonald, started a 1982 playoff game for the Browns after just three career starts. Twenty years later, Cleveland’s Kelly Holcomb accomplished the same. In 1990, Jeff Hostetler took over for an injured Phil Simms, when he won the third and fourth starts of his career in the final two weeks of the regular season. With just four career starts to his name, Hostetler helped guide the Giants to three victories in the playoffs, culminating in a win in Super Bowl XXV.

In 1979, third-year quarterback Vince Ferragamo started his first five games at the end of the regular season for the Rams, and then nearly won the Super Bowl with Los Angeles. Seven years later, Rams rookie Chris Jim Everett also made his starting debut with just five games left, but was ineffective in his team’s playoff game. Aaron Brooks was drafted by the Packers in ’99, but he became the Saints starter with five games left in the 2000 season. Brooks went 3-2 in his first five starts, and then 1-1 in the playoffs.

Shaun King put up monster numbers as part of Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez’ undefeated Tulane squad in 1998. King was then selected by Tampa Bay with the 50th pick in the ’99 draft. He replaced Trent Dilfer and went 4-1 in his first five starts and then won his first playoff game against the Redskins. In the NFC Championship Game against the Rams, King’s Bucs came up short, 11-6. In that game, King made his lasting contribution to the NFL. Since that day, fans have never quite understood what is and isn’t a catch.

I’ll close with one final USC quarterback thrust into action. In 1991, the Minnesota Vikings had an incredibly talented offense but couldn’t produce much with quarterbacks Wade Wilson and Rich Gannon. Sean Salisbury — who had a cup of coffee with the Seahawks and Colts before heading to the CFL — was the third string quarterback. In ’92, Gannon had a mediocre season but the Vikings jumped out to a 7-3 start. In the 11th game he completed 5 of 12 passes for 26 yards with two interceptions in the first half. With the score 13-0, Denny Green inserted Salisbury into the lineup, although he didn’t perform much better. But Salisbury did throw a touchdown, and thanks to an Audray McMillian interception return, Minnesota won the game, 17-13. Salisbury started the next two games before Green went back to Gannon in week fourteen. After Gannon struggled against San Francisco, Green went back to Salisbury for the final two games of the regular season. In the season finale, Salisbury outdueled Brett Favre in a Minnesota blowout, giving Salisbury a 3-1 career record as starter while the Vikings were headed to the post-season. There, Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins embarrassed Salisbury, forcing as many sacks (4) and interceptions (2) as Minnesota completions (6). Salisbury went 6 for 20 and the offense gained just nine first downs in a 24-7 Redskins win. It was not the most embarrassing day of Salisbury’s life.

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  • Mr.Murder

    The Bert Emanual game for the Bucs-Rams Championship had an early score of 6 to 5? Shaun King quarterbacked his team to a safety earlier that game, no way on earth that guy should have played as a Super Bowl starter for that season.

  • Mr.Murder

    “Jaws was only able to go 11/22 for 147 yards with 2 interceptions off the bench.”
    Wonder when the rookie finally solved the riddle of how to find “those one-on-one matchups” and make his OC Vermeil happy? 

  • Paul Meisel

    Thanks for the memories.  One thing stands out for me — both Matte and Flutie were very versatile, all around players and athletes….

  • shah8

    Time to add Joe Webb to the list…