The first of their kind

Rookie quarterbacks bring end to teams' postseason droughts

By Chris Duncan
Associated Press / January 6, 2012
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HOUSTON - Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates weren’t around for any of the miserable seasons the Bengals and Texans have had over the past two decades.

The rookie quarterbacks now control which of the long-suffering franchises will get a milestone victory when the teams open the playoffs tomorrow. They’ll make some NFL history no matter who wins - it’s the first time two rookie starters will face off in a postseason game.

“It shows how much the game has changed in these days,’’ said Yates, who’ll make his sixth career start. “My situation is obviously a lot different than Andy’s. He was drafted there to be the starter and unfortunate circumstances here in Houston led to me being the one playing.

“But you’ve just got to take advantage of every opportunity you get,’’ he said, “and it’s pretty cool to be a part of it.’’

The Bengals (9-7) are back in the postseason for the third time in seven seasons, but they haven’t advanced in 20 years. The 10-year-old Texans (10-6) are making their postseason debut, and will end the longest playoff drought of any expansion team from its inception into the league.

“This game can’t come soon enough,’’ Houston linebacker Brian Cushing said. “The atmosphere is going to be wild, so we’re just extremely thrilled about this opportunity.’’

Cincinnati’s last playoff victory came against Houston, albeit the Oilers, a 41-14 victory at Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals lost to the Los Angeles Raiders the following week, and they’ve lost two playoff games at home since, after the 2005 and ’09 seasons.

The current players haven’t given a second thought to the past failures.

“We don’t really think about it,’’ said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, finishing his sixth season. “We have some young guys on this team. I promise you some of them have no clue about that.’’

At least Cincinnati has some playoff history.

The City of Houston has waited 18 years to even see the local team play in a postseason game. The Oilers’ last playoff appearance followed the 1993 season, a loss to Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The land where Reliant Stadium now stands was just a parking lot back then, Houston coach Gary Kubiak was an assistant at Texas A&M and Yates was 6 years old.

“Just to think of how far we’ve come and to be working this week,’’ Kubiak said, “be putting in a game plan and going in those meetings and getting ready to line up, that’s what we came here to do, so let’s go do it. We’re looking forward to it.’’

Andre Johnson may be as eager as anyone.

The star receiver and face of the Houston franchise has languished through the litany of losses since the team drafted him third overall in 2003. He stayed loyal to the Texans, though, signing a contract extension in August 2010 that will keep him here through the 2016 season.

Johnson has been hobbled by hamstring injuries most of this season, but he’s healthy again just in time for the most important game of his pro career.

“You know, I always said that I wanted to be a part to help this organization get to their first playoff appearance and hopefully win their first Super Bowl,’’ he said. “I didn’t think it would take this long, but we’re here now.’’

And now it’s in the hands of two 20-somethings with zero postseason experience to determine which team moves on.

Will it be Dalton, the second-round draft pick who grew up in a Houston suburb? Or Yates, the one-time third-stringer pressed into action after season-ending injuries to Matt Schaub (right Lisfranc fracture) and backup Matt Leinart (broken left collarbone)?

“I don’t think either one of the young guys has really gone out there and acted like they’re rookies,’’ Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “So, I think that in the case of both players, they’re kind of a little bit ahead of their time.’’

Dalton, who grew up in nearby Katy, has thrown five touchdown passes and only one interception in the last six games. He missed Wednesday’s practice with flu-like symptoms, but said yesterday that he’s ready to go.

Yates, meanwhile, played only one series in last week’s loss to Tennessee after bruising his left shoulder. He’s practiced all week and both he and Kubiak have downplayed the injury’s severity.

The fifth-round pick became an instant star around town after rallying the Texans to a 20-19 win over the Bengals Dec. 11, with Johnson sidelined. Cincinnati blew a 13-point lead, after Houston’s second-ranked defense allowed only 106 yards in the second half.

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said he’s still regaining his strength less than a month after undergoing gall bladder surgery.

Phillips, 64, went on medical leave Dec. 14. He returned last week and worked from the press box in Sunday’s 23-22 loss to Tennessee. He’ll work from there again tomorrow.

“The bottom line is I’m fine, things are progressing well and it’s going to take me about six weeks total to get full energy back and be moving around and start lifting and things like that,’’ Phillips said.

Phillips returned to practice last week, though he spent long periods sitting on a golf cart with his father, Bum, the former coach of the Houston Oilers. He says he’s been fully involved in preparations for this week’s game, though he’s felt exhausted by about 5 p.m. each day.

Despite his health issues, Phillips said that he “should be considered’’ for head coaching jobs in the future.

Phillips was fired as the Cowboys coach midway through the 2010 season. Houston’s defense has made a remarkable turnaround in his first season as coordinator, improving from 30th in 2010 to second overall this year.

Phillips says he’s not looking to be a head coach again, though he believes his record (82-59) would make him a viable candidate.

“I don’t like to toot my own horn,’’ he said. “I’ve got a good record. I think I should be considered. I guess people may have taken it the wrong way that I ought to be a head coach. I don’t believe that. I think I should be considered. If you look at my record, and you can look at all the people they’re talking about now, and my record is better than most everyone they’re talking about, as a head coach.’’

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