One of the great stories so far this year is the synergy between Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton. It doesn't take a football genius to see that they are nearly perfect for each other. As always, McDaniels likes to keep things understated. There are no stars in his locker room. When he coached Tom Brady, he would regularly make a point of calling him out in from of the team, as did Bill Belichick. the message was simple - no one is above the rest of the team. Orton is exactly the guy to take that approach with - he is one of the rare players who wants to know where his game is weak, no matter the wins.
"He tries to get better," McDaniels said of Orton, who has improved to 27-12 as an NFL starter (17-2 at home). He knows he's not where he could be if he continues to improve and he sees there are plenty of things he can fix and get better at. He has played better and better each week," McDaniels acknowledged. "There are no limitations in terms of him running our offense."
Given the numbers Orton is starting to put up, that's a very interesting thought. Orton was named AFC offensive player of the week after his performance in a 20-17 overtime win against New England. He completed 35 of 48 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns. Then he went into San Diego and outplayed Philip Rivers, with a QB rating of over 100, 2 more TDs and another goose egg on INTs. Considering that he both can and will improve, the Broncos are going to be a headache for every team they play.
To put it mildly, Orton wasn't exactly an instant success in Denver. Thinking back to his shaky start in the first preseason game, in which he was intercepted three consecutive times on consecutive drives, Orton was thankful for what had happened. As he seems to do with everything, Orton saw it as a positive.
"I just thought about that this week" Kyle said "And I actually took that as a positive. I'm serious. There was a lot of doubt about me locally, but not from the coach. It was great to have a game like that and have the coach back me the way he did, with no reservations. That's the first time in my career that ever happened to me. I know my game. I'm not a turnover guy. Now I had a coach who knew I wasn't either. It was really the first time that I ever had that.''
Orton may be too classy to dwell on it, but the lack of respect from his own coaches in Chicago had to leave some scars. Kyle is glad to be out of that situation. Still, it didn't do much harm to his confidence or his calm. This is not the kind of man who tends to rattle. The level of confidence around the Broncos locker room, of course, goes far beyond just Kyle.
"We have got a confident group here from top to bottom," McDaniels said. "I think they trust our game plans, and I think we trust them to execute our game plan."
As for Orton, McDaniels said that he has nothing but faith in him, no matter what the critics have said...
Of those same critics, few of whom seem to have any real knowledge of football, Orton recently said,
"It doesn't bother me one way or the other. If you are talking good or talking bad, I don't think they have got a very good idea of what my real job actually is."
Frankly, the more I've learned about Orton from McDaniels, the more I think that's an understatement.
A 98-yard drive was part of Orton's 330-yard day behind center against New England when he threw 48 times and completed 72.9 percent of his passes -- both career highs. Then came San Diego and his 20-29, 229, 2 TD and 0 INT performance, leading his team from behind to victory yet again. Arguably, they were the two finest games of his career. He's leading the league in the 4th quarter. He just keeps getting better.
This is about Josh McDaniels, and it's about Kyle Orton, but it's also about the team buying into the system, team and organization - offense, defense and special teams. It's also about the team protecting their coach and their quarterback. Just ask Brian Dawkins; after the New England victory, he said...
"We went out to win this game and we had to win it first of all for ourselves. But you best believe we wanted to send him (McDaniels) off with a victory."
If some are surprised by Orton's growth, keep in mind that other QBs do know about Orton. Said Philip Rivers, "I remember Purdue, and he was a heck of a quarterback there and threw for a bunch of yards. Kyle, I think his record speaks for itself, what he's done in this league in Chicago and in Denver now. He's really got those guys going."
Orton leads the league in 4th-quarter QB rating at 142.5. His overall rating is 100.1. His record is 6-0. Suzy Kolber quotes him as saying that he's learned more in 4 months with McD than in 4 years at Chicago, and it shows. Congratulations to a nice guy who finishes first - over and over.
Decision making, accuracy, intellect and playing smart are more important than anything else in this system. Some QBs want to have more freedom than the system gives and some wouldn't like the hours and effort or the lack of personal glory that it takes. The Broncos need a man who is more smart than physical, whose first skill is in his work ethic, whose second is his intellect but who is still talented physically and is, most of all, accurate. Most of all, Josh McDaniels needs a QB who takes care of the ball, never puts his team in jeopardy by forcing the ball, who wants to learn and who will do whatever the team wants or needs him to. That's Kyle Orton. Orton will be much as Steve DeBerg was (but better) or even Steve Young (who was a better QB than he's become a prognosticator). He's perfect for the system and he will stay within it. That other player would have given up the ball too many times for McDaniels way of playing. There would be blood in the water if Orton had set the NFL standard for INTs in the red zone over the past two seasons or fumbled 7 times already this season.
Orton has a coach who nurtures and challenges him and the players around him to make him a winner. The Broncos will give him the check and he'll take a little less than he could get elsewhere, too. He's not as ego driven as many QBs are. He just wants to be a part of something greater than himself and to be appreciated for what he does. He's going to stay in Denver for a long time and we're going to love having him here.
PS - If you haven't treated yourself to listening to Coach Tiller of Purdue talking about Orton, here's your chance. Don't miss it.
History Repeats Itself
Which brings up another question that is being asked a lot: will the Broncos pony up to keep Kyle Orton? On that same point - will Orton take less than he could get elsewhere to stay? I admit to having no concerns at all about this, but it's not that I've placed my head in the sand. There's a historical reason for my complacency that can be summed up in two words - Bill Walsh. The history of Walsh and his quarterbacks is intricate and complex, but this year's Broncos are the best example of history repeating itself that I can recall.
From an offseason article I wrote, Peyton Hillis, Hands and History:
Beginning with the accurate but truly noodle-armed Virgil Carter, with Cincinnati in 1971, Walsh taught his quarterback to throw so well that he went from a less than 50% lifetime completion average to leading the league at 62.2%. Walsh taught him to throw short passes with a very high rate of completion and very, very few interceptions. After he would leave Cincinnati, Walsh moved on to the San Diego Chargers where he dealt with the momentous issues of Dan Fouts' mechanics, decision-making and footwork before moving yet again, this time to Stanford and continued to groom quarterbacks and re-write offensive strategy. By the time he achieved his dream of becoming an NFL head coach in San Francisco, Walsh had worked his program out to a science.
What really made his system unique, however, in addition to the more famous timing routes, was the emphasis that Walsh placed on reducing the number of decisions that the quarterback made. For example,with Fouts, Walsh taught him to look for the open man rather than trying to read the opposing teams' defense. Howard Mudd's name has been in the news quite a bit recently - he's one of the 'coaches' for Indianapolis who will be hired back as a 'consultant' in a blatant and utterly forgivable work-around on the NFL retirement rules. At that time, Mudd was the offensive line coach for the San Diego Chargers, and he summed up this circumstance up by saying, "Bill Walsh made Dan Fouts."
How did he do this? For one thing, Walsh was a genius at developing a young quarterback's timing, flow, rhythm and footwork. He took Steve DeBerg, a 10 round draft choice who presided over the lowest scoring offense in the NFL in 1978. His completion percentage was a whopping 45.4%. After a year under Walsh's tutelage, it was up over 60%. This wasn't an isolated incident, either. Jack Kemp had completed less than 1/2 his passes n his career with the LA Rams, but when he came in for an injured Joe Montana with the 49ers he threw nearly 60% and led the league in passer rating. Such was Bill Walsh's magic.
But there was an aspect that has gotten far less notice. Walsh did not believe in the idea of the quarterback as the most important player on the field. To Walsh's mind, the head coach was the most important player and the rest production assistants in his set. He once said, "The performance of a quarterback must be manipulated. To a degree, coaching can make a quarterback and it is certainly the most important factor for his success. The design of the teams offense is the key to a quarterback's performance. One has to be tuned to the other."
Josh McDaniels belies a lot of the things that Bill Walsh did. While Walsh was an iconic quarterbacks and offensive coach, McDaniels is probably more well-rounded as a manager as well as a head coach. He's certainly more centered. Orton is tuned to McDaniels, and Josh is tuned to Kyle. If anything has been obvious so far, I'd say this is pretty plain. Neither is going to let this one get away.
Please consider that for all the comparisons Denverites tend to make regarding this QB or that one, Orton's numbers are headed into a rare and almost unknown territory for a Broncos QB. I had predicted, based on what I'd seen of Kyle, the film I watched of him, his known strong areas, what I'd seen of Josh McDaniels and how I thought that they would interact, that his completion rate would go up, perhaps sharply, that his skill set would fit the system and that he would be happy, productive and an almost new player once he mastered that system. Sometimes I'm wrong; this time I was right. But another thing I'll continue to predict is that we haven't seen anything yet.
Bill Walsh always used to say, "The first year, we teach the player the system. The second year, we develop his skills within the system." He also liked to add,
"The ability to help the people around me self actualize their goals underlines the single aspect of my abilities and the label that I value most: Teacher." (from "The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership," by Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh). McDaniels, too, loves to teach. Kyle Orton loves to learn. They're perfect for each other.
Think about this for a moment. Orton has been learning the system for about 6 months. He's been playing within it for just a few - about 4, a little less. He has the O-line that Walsh wished he had, the receivers that Walsh wanted and he's also being given a lot of support from his coach. That coach stepped up, wanted him, didn't wish that he was someone else and is teaching him how to be the greatest player that he can be. I've already covered his numbers; so I won't bore you, but look back at them, consider these statements of Walsh's and also consider that it's been said that to learn - really learn, so that it's instinct - the McDaniels/NE version of the system takes about 3 years. What that really means is that Orton will continue to be improving, in measurable and immeasurable ways, on the performances and numbers that he's putting up and to do so for a long time yet. Can you get better than 6-0? Sure - every week, beyond that bye, we'll have that chance.
Now, based on these facts, someone needs to explain to me why the Broncos won't offer him the money and why he won't take it. Because I'm not following that one at all.
Tomorrow morning I'll offer up my Thoughts on the Broncos' trip to Baltimore. Go Broncos!