How could Kyle Orton help the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles? To figure that out you have to examine Orton’s career up to this point.
The last time Orton took a meaningful snap in the NFL was at the end of the 2011 season as a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs. On that New Year’s Day he led the Chiefs to a 7-3 win over the Denver Broncos, which had to be a bit of sweet revenge for Orton.
You see, earlier that season Orton was the starter in Denver, but five games into the season the Broncos were 1-4 and they made a change at quarterback. The Broncos made Tim Tebow the starter and he led the Broncos on a whirlwind ride to the postseason. Orton, meanwhile, was waived and moved on to Kansas City.
Yes, the quarterback that could start for the Cowboys this Sunday against Philadelphia was once benched for Tim Tebow.
So then who is the real Kyle Orton?
John Crist, the former publisher of Bear Report in Chicago, covered Orton during the quarterback’s time in Chicago. RattleandHumsports.com asked Crist to provide a short scouting report on Orton:
“Kyle Orton is a capable NFL quarterback and has won a lot of games in this league. But even coming from someone who has never covered the Cowboys on a daily basis, it’s not hard to figure out that the offense is going to look awfully different with him under center as opposed to Tony Romo. While the two of them are roughly similar in terms of pure arm talent, Romo’s greatest strength is his ability to improvise after the integrity of the play breaks down and create offense on the fly. Orton simply can’t do that. He tends to make sound decisions and takes relatively good care of the football, but it will be up to the offensive line to give him more time and the receivers to get open quicker if Dallas is going to score points on Philadelphia.”
An examination of Orton’s career backs up Crist’s scouting report. His best seasons have some when the talent around him allows him to do just that.
Let’s start with his career numbers. Orton has a record of 35-34 as a starter. He’s completed 58.4 percent of his passes and has thrown 81 touchdowns against 57 interceptions. Those starts came with Chicago, Denver and Kansas City.
He had his most success in the first five seasons of his career. Pressed into service as a rookie in 2005 when Rex Grossman suffered a preseason injury, Orton went 10-5 as a starter, throwing for 1,869 yards, 9 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Orton helped the Bears to an eight-game winning streak. But he had plenty of help. Thomas Jones rushed for 1,335 yards and 9 touchdowns. The Bears’ defense was No. 1 in the league in points allowed, giving up 12.6 per game. It was as perfect a situation as a rookie quarterback could ask for, but by the playoffs Orton yielded to Grossman.
The Bears thought so much of Orton after that 2005 season that they signed Brian Griese to be the starter and demoted Orton to third string, where he stayed until the end of the 2007 season when the Bears gave Orton three starts to end the season after their playoff hopes ended. He led the Bears to a pair of wins in those three games and it provided the Bears with enough hope to give Orton the chance to complete with Grossman for the starting job, a competition Orton won.
In 2008 he went 9-6 as a starter, threw 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as he helped the Bears to a 9-7 overall record. The Bears didn’t make the playoffs, but it looked like Orton had the lock on the starting job for 2009 until April when the Bears dealt for Jay Cutler.
New Broncos coach Josh McDaniels and Cutler learned quickly they were like oil and water, and the Broncos made the move to deal Cutler. The Bears gave up Orton and three draft picks – including two first-rounders – to get Cutler. Orton fell into a situation with a new head coach and a new team and quickly earned the starting job.
Statistically speaking, 2009 was his best pro season. He led the Broncos on a 6-0 start – including a Week 4 win over the Cowboys – and finished the season with an 8-7 record as a starter. The Broncos went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Still, Orton threw for 3,802 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a career-high 62.1 percent completion rate.
Orton’s 2010 numbers were similar – 3,653 yards, 20 touchdowns and 9 interceptions – but Orton went 3-10 as a starter. He did set career highs for passing yards in a game (476 yards vs. Indianapolis) and 4 touchdown passes (vs. Kansas City). But McDaniels was fired toward the end of the season and the interim regime gave Tebow three starts.
Before the 2011 season the Broncos hired John Fox as head coach and kept Orton as the starting quarterback. But by Week 5 Orton was benched for ineffectiveness and his time in Denver ended shortly after.
Looking at Orton’s history, he’s never played as a pinch-hit starter, coming off the bench in an important game. But he has played in two win-or-go-home games, the new popular statistic used to underscore Romo’s late-season struggles.
Those results aren’t encouraging.
In 2008 the Bears could have gone to the playoffs with a win in Week 17. Orton and the Bears lost, 31-24, in Houston as Orton threw for 244 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. The Bears struggled with the run game that day, gaining less than 100 yards.
In 2009 the Broncos needed a Week 17 win over Kansas City to make the playoffs. But the Broncos lost, 44-24. Orton threw three interceptions – two of which came in the fourth quarter. Still, he threw for 431 yards.
The formula for success for Orton is two-fold. He needs a productive running game and an above-average defense, along with the protection that Crist spoke about earlier in the article. Along with his rookie season in 2005, his most productive season in Denver in 2009 featured a two-headed backfield monster of Knowshon Moreno (947 yards) and Correll Buckhalter (642 yards). His last season in 2008 featured Matt Forte, who gained more than 1,200 yards rushing.
The Cowboys can provide that at least. DeMarco Murray is having his best season as a pro and is the first Cowboys back in seven years to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
The second part – the defense – is a bit more dubious.
The Bears had above-average, and at times great, defenses throughout Orton’s tenure. In his first season in Denver the Broncos gave up 20.2 points per game, good for 12th in the NFL. The following year, 2010, the Broncos were dead last in points allowed and the Broncos went 4-12.
This Cowboys defense is the worst in team history, allowing more than 400 yards per game and giving up more than 27 points per game. That likely won’t be Orton’s friend on Sunday night.
The game plan for Sunday night, if Orton starts, is pretty clear. It’s a heavy dose of Murray, short passing routes that take advantage of Orton’s arm to neutralize the blitz and a defense that the Cowboys hope and pray can do something against an Eagles offense that has been potent the past two months.
The more help the Cowboys can give Orton, the better their chances of getting a pre-2010 performance out of him in the biggest game of the season.