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Orton's uphill climb to the top
QB may have struggled early in his career, but it was to be expected given his situation
This week's "Monday Night Football" game features a 27-year-old quarterback coming into his own as a professional, one who took over as a rookie and rode an excellent defense to a gaudy record only to come up short in the playoffs. After dealing with some off-the-field issues, he's emerged as the bona fide deal, a legitimately superb quarterback with the ability to carry his team to victory through thick and thin.
Ben Roethlisberger? Yeah, he's good too. We'll take Kyle Orton for $995,000 this year, thanks.
In light of his success as the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback, it's time to re-evaluate Orton. Is he a game manager who relies upon his defense? A journeyman in the right places at the right times? A secretly effective quarterback who just wins? Let's go back to the beginning and give him a fair shake.
Before we start, we'll throw out the unfortunate drinking photos and choices in facial hair. They might have been poor decisions, but they didn't involve breaking the law, and they don't have any impact on his performance nowadays. They've obviously come to form part of Orton's reputation as a somewhat laughable quarterback, but they're irrelevant to his quality of play.
Orton was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Purdue in his senior season before petering out in the second half of the year, thanks to a nagging hip injury that cost him accuracy. Playing mostly out of the shotgun, he put up numbers comparable to those of his Boilermakers predecessor, Drew Brees.
Easy Like Breesy
During their time at Purdue, Orton and Brees put up similar numbers.
Player Cmp Att Cmp % Yds Yds/Att
Brees 990 1,617 61.2 11,394 7.05
Orton 786 1,336 58.8 9,337 6.99
Just like with Brees, questions were raised about Orton's ability to adapt to the pro game coming out of a shotgun-friendly system. Orton's ESPN prospect profile noted:
As was the case with former Purdue star Drew Brees (Chargers), it may take Orton longer to make the transition to the NFL than other quarterbacks that had better experience in a more traditional offense. Orton needs to improve the quickness of his delivery and become much more consistent when put under pressure. Otherwise, Orton has the physical tools and makeup to develop into a solid starter in the NFL. He has the size, arm strength, accuracy and mind that it takes to succeed at the next level.
Of course, the Chicago Bears selected Orton in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL draft, and after starting quarterback Rex Grossman fractured his ankle during the preseason, the 22-year-old Orton was the Bears' Opening Day starter against the Washington Redskins.
Although Chicago went 10-5 with Orton at the helm before he gave way to Grossman, it wasn't a pretty season. He ranked 45th among NFL quarterbacks in defense-adjusted yards above replacement and 41st in defense-adjusted value over average. He also completed only 51.6 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (nine). (For an explanation of Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, click here.) The 2005 season gave Orton a reputation as being overmatched at the pro level.
It's true, Orton was overmatched. But the reality is that any quarterback of Orton's caliber coming out of the college ranks would have been overmatched. Of the players from the DVOA era (1995 to 2009), Orton is one of only two fourth-round picks to start more than five games as a rookie. The other one was Chris Weinke, who fell that far in the draft only because he was already 29 years old, and Weinke put up numbers comparable to Orton's.
That's not surprising because every other quarterback taken after the first round who started more than five games as a rookie between 1995 and 2009 has been mediocre at best. The list isn't long: second-rounders Tony Banks, Charlie Batch, Quincy Carter and Jake Plummer, third-rounder Trent Edwards and sixth-rounder Bruce Gradkowski. Only Plummer was younger than Orton in his rookie season, and none of them had what would qualify as good seasons. Once you get past the elite quarterbacks taken in the first round, passers simply require an adjustment period.
After two years with Grossman at the helm, Orton became the starter at the beginning of the 2008 season. His first half bore no resemblance to the Orton of old, but after spraining his ankle in a Week 9 game against the Lions, he came back too early and had a frightening second half that depressed his numbers.
Too Much, Too Fast, Too Soon
After being rushed into the lineup, Orton's stats suffered, as they did when he returned too quickly from an ankle injury.
Time Span Cmp Att Cmp Yds Yds/Att TD INT
2005 190 368 51.6 1,869 5.08 9 13
First half of 2008 151 244 61.9 1,777 7.29 10 4
Second half of 2008 121 221 54.8 1,195 5.41 8 8
Actual totals of 2008 272 465 58.5 2,972 6.39 18 12
First half per 16 games 2008 302 488 61.9 3,554 7.29 20 8
Orton's DVOA dropped like a rock; it stood at an impressive 18.5 percent before the injury, but after he returned, he was back at replacement level, down at minus-22.9 percent.
This season, of course, Orton has been fantastic for the Broncos. Although he's at a flukily low interception rate of one in 231 attempts, he's completed nearly 64 percent of his passes while throwing nine scores against that lone pick. His 27.4 percent DVOA compares favorably to Jay Cutler's 22.0 percent DVOA with the same offensive line and receivers in the 2008 season, and at a salary of $995,000, he's been an absolute bargain.
So, consider this alternate scenario for Orton. Throw out the crappy facial hair. Get rid of the rookie season for which every other quarterback of his ilk also would have been overmatched, and turn his sprained ankle into a broken one that cost him the remainder of the season.
What you'd have then is an incredibly promising prospect, a quarterback who struggled to get time behind the overrated Grossman before emerging as a star in a half-season before suffering a fluke ankle injury. After a trade to Denver, he's outperformed the more expensive Cutler, and he'll be entering unrestricted free agency despite being younger than Philip Rivers or Eli Manning.
Maybe Orton isn't as good as we're making him out to be. Chances are, though, he's a better quarterback than a lot of people have given him credit for.
Orton the next Brees?!?!