How good is Kyle Orton, anyway?

The other day, I was ambling about in some stat sites. An article went up about Orton and I decided to gather some stats and some research together - the better informed the argument, the more cogent it can become. I also recognized that I would need a bit of help putting together all the stats, since I wanted to find the bad as well as the good. I gave a yell to TJ 'lebowskibronco' Johnson, who was kind enough to pitch in on this article. It's from both of us.

I appreciate the recent post by Broncos Cheer regarding Kyle Orton. I loved the following discussions, and many posters made excellent points on both sides of the issue. Several folks were arguing against the long-term position of Kyle Orton as the QB of the Broncos, and that's a legitimate concern. I'm very upfront about my disagreement with that position, despite my enjoyment of the arguments on both sides. However - in my own mind, this issue can be aided by being subjected to a small amount of logic, a little history and the value of observing progressions. Kyle Orton's career is an obvious progression that will shed a lot of light on what his future with the Broncos will be.

Progression - Random House Dictionary has this to say:

pro⋅gres⋅sion

/prəˈgrɛʃən/ Pronunciation [pruh-gresh-uhn], noun

1. the act of progressing; forward or onward movement.
2. a passing successively from on member of a series to the next; succession; sequence.
3. Mathematics. a succession of quantities in which there is a constant relation between each member and the one succeeding it.

Orton's career has been a long and continuous progression from mediocrity to high-quality play and yet many (perhaps most) fans, still view him as an unknown quantity at best and a known-but-unacceptable quantity at the worst. It's been my impression, in listening to fan comments here and elsewhere, that many of the people who still doubt Orton always did - before there was really any evidence on which to base an opinion. In this article, I won't speak to that group. It's not because I don't respect them (I emphatically do), but because against ignorance, as it has been said, the gods themselves contend in vain. I have found that you cannot change anyone's mind if they have a prejudice. For the vast majority, who tend to open minds, I'd like to add some facts that seem to Bear on the situation.

My own beliefs about Orton are based on several things. First, I spent a great deal of time watching all of his games from 2008 and saw, in my own limited way, much the same qualities that Josh McDaniels was drawn to. He is obviously extremely smart. Most of his errors were 'forced' - while his number of sacks was about average, his hurries and knockdowns were well above average and they made a big difference in his performance. Broncos fans quickly became aware of this during the preseason - there was a great deal of reasonable discussion of Orton's need to adjust the clock in his head from the need to have a fast release of the ball regardless of circumstance, which he too often played with in Chicago, to the (generally) improved time that he has to throw while playing for Denver. I'm curious - how many of us would now argue that he hasn't been making that transition effectively?

I also saw a QB who was far more accurate than his numbers. Please let me explain: I had seen, over the years, a lot of QBs. I've been watching football for over 50 years now. As a result, there are a few things that I have come to believe. First - every QB makes mistakes, and in nearly every game. Joe Montana at his best made bone-headed errors far more frequently than memory admits. Our memories of such things tend to be transient. Watch a few of Peyton Manning's games from this year. He's playing very well - and he makes foolish and (to us) obvious errors in nearly every game. Many of them are overcome by the play of his receivers, who constantly adjust their routes, fight successfully for the ball and at times knock the ball down to prevent interceptions. That's what every good receiving corps has to do. Expecting QBs to make zero mistakes isn't realistic. They all make them. It's part of the game. In fact, in the NFL, there are, on average, approximately 2 turnovers per game. Interceptions are also more common than fumbles, happening approximately 60% of the time. This doesn't even count the number of near interceptions caused by hurried throws or simply bad timing by the quarterback and wide receiver. To think that Orton is the only quarterback that has bad games, or to claim that he doesn't pass the "eye test" is akin to closing your eyes when watching every other game in the NFL.

In Chicago, Orton didn't have the luxury of help. His line was poor and his receivers were fair-to-abysmal, for the most part. There is a reason that the Bears brought on some new receivers this year - they had to, and it still hasn't helped their offense very much, in part due to inadequate changes on the O-line as well as injuries and problems on the defense.

In Denver, Orton and his receivers are still getting to learn each other. Royal has been in a possible sophomore slump, although he's still finding his role in this offense (is he or isn't he a slot receiver?). Marshall is coming on. Drops have come in groups - 4 in the first two games, none until Baltimore and then a few more. But as to Orton's accuracy? Let's look at history as well as the present.

Over the four years that Orton has played (he did not play in 2006) his completion percentage has risen steadily from 51.6 in 2005 to 53.8 in 2007, 58.5 in 2008 and 62.6 in 2009. Consider that for a moment - it has raised exactly 11 percentage points (a 21% increase) over that time. Since coming to Denver, that percentage has risen from 58.5 - 62.5. What are the odds that this will suddenly stop and he'll revert to old issues? Hardly any, I'll argue in a bit.

How about his QB rating? I know - it's almost a mystical number and many folks object to it because they, like myself, are nearly incapable of understanding it. Well, in fairness - I'm not much on mechanical engineering, either, but I still drive a car. I'm comfortable using the QB rating because it, like my vehicle, is simple a tool for getting around - one on the streets, and one for getting around on the issues of professional football. Orton's QB ratings?

2005 - 59.7

2006 - N/A

2007 - 73.9

2008 - 79.6

2009 - 95.5

To me, a consistent increase in rating indicates a steadily improving QB. In this case, we are looking at an improvement of over 35 points over this time period, which is most certainly not small. His current level leaves him in the top 12 in the league and he is in the top half and above in several categories. In still others - ones that I think matter the most - he's near the top of the league's QBs. I have to admit - I remain perplexed at those who feel that a top-ten QB "doesn't have 'it'." Really? What is the 'it' are you looking for? There are few Peyton Manning's and few Tom Brady's. As an aside on Brady - I believe that he will return to pre-surgery form. To my clinically-trained eyes, I can still see impediments in his post-surgery motions that would be reasonably caused by adhesions which remain after that operation. At times he also guards that knee, which is probably subconscious. He'll get there. Orton, on the other hand, has improved his mechanics greatly over the past 1.5 years. 

For those who are uncertain about this, the recent quote that I felt best sums up the situation came from Suzy Kolber on the Chargers Monday Night Football game. She claimed to be quoting Orton, and claims that he mentioned that he has learned more in 4 months under Josh McDaniels than he did in 4 years in Chicago. It's quite a statement - but if you look at his numbers, it's a very reasonable statement. Orton is improving rapidly. He's learning an incredibly complex offense that Tom Brady once remarked takes a couple of years - or more- to learn. The incessant demand of fans that he already by perfectly proficient, make all the throws (including those that aren't called by Josh McDaniels) and make no errors is simply unrealistic. Folks - no QB does that. Even during the 49ers first championship season of 1983, it's well known that Bill Walsh would hold back much of the playbook from none other than Joe Montana, because Montana still had not grasped the entire offense. And yet, we expect Orton to have immediately mastered an offense that many consider more complex than Walsh's.

All QBs have to learn the system. I'm aware that some fans hate the idea that QBs are also ranked by wins, but that doesn't change the fact that they are. Orton has done the job for the Broncos. Whether they are 7-1 or 6-2 after the Pittsburgh game, unless Orton has some kind of a meltdown, most of our problems weren't and aren't with the QB position.

Let's look at the O-line, shall we? If we have learned anything in the past year, it's that the O-line and receivers matter greatly to a QB's performance. Those fans in Chicago have learned the same. The simple fact is that the O-line, just as some of our members were wise enough to predict, is not what it was last year. There are multiple issues, but in the end, Orton has already been sacked 11 times for a loss of 67 yards. During some games, he is usually very safe. When the defense is able to put him down and/or to hurry him frequently, like all QBs, his numbers decline. The line needs to play better. I believe that the change from a zone blocking scheme to a more mixed scheme, which our players aren't perfectly suited for, is a problem that they are working to improve. It may take another year's offseason - certainly, I expect that we will have a couple of changes to the line in the next season.

We should also look at his supposed 'immobility'. How many times does he need to move nicely out of the way of the rush and complete passes on the run before some fans will admit that he has some skill there? He's not Jake Plummer (Sorry, Zap:D) - he doesn't move constantly. But he's kept his sack numbers decent and he has more skill and mobility than he gets credit for. That seems to be a theme, doesn't it? Well - in all fairness, it should be.

Orton keeps doing two things - improving, and winning. Frankly, the simple fact that folks can complain about the QB position with the kind of numbers that Orton has put up and the win total that he is (and make no mistake) in great part responsible for doesn't surprise me any longer, but it's a darned shame. Fans seem to be blowing in the wind - when we're 6-0, hardly anyone has an issue with Kyle. At 6-1, even 6-2, suddenly they're not going to keep him? Um, folks...? Consistency is as good for fans as it is on the field. What is it about this year that has made so many fans into windsocks, twisting and turning whichever way the wind is blowing at that moment? I don't think that I've ever seen Broncos' fans so nervous.

Here's what Orton doesn't do: He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He doesn't throw INTs. He doesn't fumble the ball easily - in fact, I've been pleasantly surprised that he's been able to hold on the the ball during some of the hits that he's taken. He doesn't give up the ball when you need him to hold on to it. He doesn't throw it away on INTs, either. He's learned to just throw it out of bounds and come back for the next play.

He doesn't blame anyone else if things go wrong. He's harder on himself than anyone else can be, even the demanding Josh McDaniels. Many folks have mistaken McD's tendency to not praise Orton excessively as a tacit criticism. I don't see it that way at all. McDaniels had the same tendency with Tom Brady, and that should give those who claim that McD doesn't have faith in Orton a great deal of pause.

Their relationship isn't unlike that of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Brady recently gave some insight into this relationship in an interview from Details Magazine:

"Sometimes, during practice, you throw a bad ball - that's the way it goes. But the video comes up and he says, 'Brady, you can't complete a goddamn hitch.' And I'll be sitting there thinking, I'm a *censored* nine-year veteran, I've won three goddamn Super Bowls - he can kiss my... That's what you're thinking on the inside. But on the outside I'm thinking, You know what? I'm glad he's saying that. I'm glad that's what he's expecting, you know? Because that's what I should be expecting. That's what his style is."

Former Bronco and Patriot John Lynch commented,

"What struck me about Josh was that he'd get in there and coach Tom Brady. If Brady made a mistake, Josh would let him know it and he wouldn't mince words about it. He had great control."

Much was made over the sideline criticism that McDaniels gave Orton earlier in the year when he told him, "No more 'My bad,'" but I believe it was similar to what Belichick does with Brady all the time and what McD used to do. Orton loves the hard work, loves the constant feedback on how to do better, employs every aspect of the teaching that he can in this brief time that he's received it and has become a leader through his examples on the field, in the weight room and in the locker room. Why not look at the results?

Some argue bitterly that the wins aren't in any way due to Orton. I find that incredulous, but purely for argument's sake, OK, fine. Let's just talk about where he is in the league for a moment. Most of these are taken from STATS (http://hosted.stats.com) and NFL.com  (http://www.nfl.com).  To be as fair as I can, I'm going to start off with some of his comparative weaknesses.

  • QB rating - 12th
  • TDs - (T) 16th
  • Completions (T) 10th
  • Comp Percent - 13th
  • Yards - 15th
  • Yards per Game - 15th
  • 20+ Yard throws - (T)17th)
  • 40+ Yard Throws - 11th
  • Sacked - (T) 11th
  • 1st Down Percentage - 16th

Critics of Orton have claimed many things, but one of these criticisms is that Orton is weaker when throwing the deep ball. Although that's really not the case, he certainly has room to improve on 3rd and long (more than 8 yards). Through week 8, here is where Orton stacks up against the other perceived elite QBs in the game (courtesy of http://hosted.stats.com):

4088464070_5cff98152a

Orton ranks 23rd league-wide. Many factors influence a successful 3rd and long play (blitz, WR routes, play call, score), but it's true that Orton has room for improvement in this area, considering some of the the good QBs who sit atop this category. This statistic also gives clarity to the strategy that the Ravens used against the Broncos: sit on the mid-level curl routes, while zone blitzing.

Another valid critique of Orton this year is his play between mid-field and the the 20 yard line. While his statistics in every other part of the field are of Pro-Bowl caliber, his play in this part of the field has been quite pedestrian (courtesy of NFL.com):

4087708073_29338e730d

We can see that when Orton has the team driving toward the red zone, his QB rating is 65.7 and his completion percentage has been a pretty awful 51.7%.  The good news, however, is that even with this average play, he still hasn't turned the ball over, and when he gets into the Red Zone, he brings an excellent 106.2 rating. There are a lot of factors outside of his own performance that go into that 65.7, too. I seem to recall quite a few penalties, dropped passes and mistakes at unseemly times in that zone.  

Okay, so we've seen his comparative weaknesses (mostly 10th to 16th in the league) and his weakness on a certain part of the field, which isn't so bad either when we consider how great he's been in the red zone.  But how about his strengths?

  • Percentage of passes competed, 4th Q - (T) 9th
  • QB rating, 4th Q - 2nd
  • Percentage of completions, 2nd half - 6th
  • INTs - (T) 1st
  • Percentage of INTs - 1st (.04%)
  • TDs passing, 4th Q - (T) 5th
  • Longest pass completion - 2nd (87)
  • QB rating, 2nd half - 3rd (110.8)
  • TD/INT ratio - 1st (9-1)

And here, my friends, is why there is so much fuss about a QB whose team is 6-1. If you look at some generalities, Orton is an upper-to-middle of the pack QB. That's what folks usually object to. He isn't flashy, and fans love flashy. They want that 'big win'. You know, the one that they don't have but love to imagine. And in some areas, Orton is just middle of the pack. Unless of course, you notice that  Orton's 18-2 (.900) career record at home as a starter is the best by an NFL player since the 1970 merger. I've watched enough of his games to know that's not a fluke, but a pattern with solid reasons behind it.

In all fairness, middle of the pack's not a bad thing when you've recently changed teams and are learning (Yes, folks, still, and for another year, too. So would any other QB, so there's no advantage to changing players.) a new and extremely complex system. Orton has learned more in 4 months - now 5 - than in the 4 years prior. If you look honestly at what that means, you can see an obvious conclusion. He's going to continue to improve. And you can support that by his history. That's what he's always done.

Kyle Orton has two advantages that are usually ignored. First, his ability to learn, adapt and improve is superb. You only have to take his overall career numbers and chart them to see this - it shows how much he learns, how successful he is at adapting and using new information. Regardless of circumstances, he just keeps getting better. McDaniels often talks about how smart Orton is. He's not exaggerating. Orton can adapt to and implement new information very quickly. He's surprisingly expert at analyzing the defense and changing plays to adapt. He, like the coaches, seems to get better as each game goes on, with the single exception of the Ravens game.

Secondly - Orton is money when it's crunch time. One thing that attracted Josh McDaniels was likely to have been Orton's red zone and 2 minute numbers - crunch time numbers - in Chicago. He managed a QB rating of 96.0 with a 1.69% INT rating in the red zone last year. During the 2 minute drill that was a 0.0% INT rate to go with a 108.2 QB rating. That has to draw one's attention.

Now in Denver, he's brought the team from behind more than once; in fact, in more than half the games: Cincinnati, Dallas, New England, San Diego were come-from-behind wins. His 4th quarter performances are at the top of the league. His entire second half numbers are excellent. He is the exact QB that you want when you need to have a successful drive with the game on the line. And he gets almost no credit for it at all, which perplexes me. I know that even some MHR supporters are going over to the Windy City Gridiron to drool over Cutler, but Orton's numbers are better almost across the board. 

One of the oddest responses to Orton's work has been the number of fans who believe that somehow the answer to whatever problem they think the Broncos have is found in taking a quarterback in the first round of the 2010 draft. Perhaps I can put that in perspective. Dennis Dillion recently wrote an article that bears on this belief. He did well at pointing out why it's misguided at best, and more likely foolish. Here's what he said:

"All the praise that was lavished last year on Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan — and both players deserved it for leading their teams to the playoffs in their rookie seasons — obscured the fact that too many promising quarterbacks struggle mightily when they get to the NFL.  As Exhibits A through F, we offer Alex Smith, Jason Campbell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn. All six players came into the NFL within the last five years as first-round draft picks with extraordinary college resumes and lofty expectations.  Thus far, they haven't managed to lift their careers off the tarmac. Thus far, they have been busts.  Given the history of first-round quarterbacks, maybe we shouldn't be surprised."

And here is what former Raven's coach and current FOX analyst Brian Billick had to say regarding drafting a quarterback while promoting his book More than a Game: 

"It's what the numbers have borne out over the last number of years.  I wrote that there have been 40- plus quarterbacks taken in the first round since '95. By any stretch of the imagination, 13 or 14 of them have been successful.  "We always say it's a 50-50 crap-shoot when you take a quarterback in the first round. Well, it's more like 70-30. Those are the odds. These guys are probably on par with the failures of first-round quarterbacks for the last 20 to 30 years in the NFL."  "

If you accept this researched scenario as fact, rather than just making the same arguments for your preferred college QB as the next Peyton Manning that so many others made for theirs, it makes clear why the idea that X player is what the Broncos really need is such a bad gamble. On the one hand, you have a QB who has the best home record in decades -- that's decades -- and who has led the team to a 6-1 record. He's in the top 5 in the league in several major categories and has brought the team back from behind 4 times in 7 games. On the other hand, you have a 70% chance that your desired college player, no matter who they are, will be worse. FAR worse. It really doesn't make any sense that I can see. What's really being said is the same thing that was said in Chicago and has been said in Denver since Orton got here.

"I can't see what Josh McDaniels saw when he became excited about Kyle Orton. Because I don't see that, I'm going to ignore his record and his skills and demand another QB for the Broncos." That's exactly what many of the fans are saying, and that still astounds me.

Folks, ignoring history is being fated to repeat it. When McDaniels came on, fan after fan gave their 'view' of why he didn't know what he was doing, was an arrogant fool, was over his head and was doomed to failure. Why? Because they couldn't see what he was really seeing, doing and creating. But ever though his decisions, choices of coach, assistant and players, as well as his choice of QB has the Broncos at 6-1, I'm still hearing the same thing. "I don't see it. Orton doesn't pass the eye test. I trust my eyes." In this case, that also means that you'll have to trust them over what McD sees. That's the catch that I can't get around, at least for myself.

I tend to trust McDaniels' eyes. He's forgotten more than I'll learn about the game. I've had some good success by assuming that he knows more than I do and trying to see why he's doing what he is, rather than second guessing him. In this case, you've got a QB who is better than 2/3 of those in the league and who gets better as the game goes on. Do we consider not paying him, not keeping him or shall we continue to accept that he's doing well and will continue to do so.

Throw in Orton's consistency, his lack of mistakes when the games matters most, his leadership and his ability to change plays at the line to improve the running as well as the passing game and you have a QB that I want to keep. Orton has always fought against this kind of judgmentalism and he probably always will. When he raises the Lombardi Trophy, someone will mutter, "Yeah, but it was really the defense..." It isn't true this week and it won't be true next week, either.

At times perhaps it might bother him, but in general, Kyle understands the game - on and off the field - far better than the fans do. Of his constant critics, many of whom came out of the woodwork, predictably, when the Broncos lost a single game and in which Orton didn't play any worse than those around him, Orton says this:

"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."

Josh McDaniels commented on the (over)emphasis on physical issues regarding the QB position recently: 

"The physical part of most other positions is an absolute necessity," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "Quarterbacks, you can be successful with different types, but I do think they share some things in common. Maybe more than what people typically talk about. They all can run the huddle. They're leaders."

To be honest, that's exactly what I've been seeing and reading. For what it's worth - if Orton isn't your cup of tea, I don't have an issue with that. Opinions are free and they vary widely. But if you don't even know what he's good at, if you don't understand why it is that he keeps winning games (which is what you've done when you bring your team from behind in the 4th quarter) you might want to look carefully at where he's been, where he is now and where his stats and performances say that he's going before you tout an opinion about why he should be replaced. After all - that isn't going to happen. By all indicators that I can find, this young man is just continuing to get better.

For all the talk from some of the fans, it's my belief that Kyle Orton isn't going anywhere. I'll cheerfully eat those words if the Broncos bench him or waive him, but I wouldn't hold my breath.  Not only has his play dictated that he'll be sticking around for awhile, the philosophy of Josh McDaniels also dictates this.   The Broncos are not going to go off and draft/sign a QB (or any other play for that matter) and break the bank.  It's simply not a sound move in the era of The Salary Cap.  They have to spread the dollars around in order to build a team of depth.  As the Football Outsiders noted (discussing the then 2006 Redskins):

"By and large, a team built on depth is better than a team built on starts and scrubs...you cannot concentrate your salaries on a handful of star players because there is no such thing as avoiding injuries in the NFL. Every team will suffer injuries; the only question is how many. The game is too fast and the players too strong to build a team based around the idea that 'if we can avoid all injuries this year, we'll win.'"

Viewed in this light, Orton is the perfect fit for Denver.  He's not going to unnecessarily cost the Broncos at the expense of another position. He will take a little less than some QBs would. This will allow the team to also build depth at other positions and, in a cyclical way, increase his intrinsic value to the team at the same time.  And when your QB is at the top of the game, league wide, when the game's on the line and if your team is 6-1 - not keeping him is a fool's game at best. Orton's the Broncos' QB. Barring injury, that isn't about to change. I find that to be a good thing.

Bill Parcells, someone who knows a little about winning, and to whom Josh McDaniels can indirectly be associated with through Belichick, had 11 commandments for the quarterback position.  But it's the last commandment that I believe describes Kyle Orton,  and it's the quote that I'd like to leave you with:  

"Don’t be a celebrity quarterback. We don’t need any of those. We need battlefield commanders that are willing to fight it out everyday, every week, and every season, and lead their team to win after win after win."

Ultimately, that's how we just judge Orton:  win after win after win.

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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