3 Denver BRONCOS

It's Kyle Orton's team—for now—and he looks ready to rise to the challenge
September 05, 2010

KYLE ORTON stepped onto the 17th tee box at Cherry Creek Country Club in Denver last June, lined up a 190-yard shot and released his Mizuno seven-iron with a swing that was as sweet as it was controlled. The ball arced against the pale-blue sky, and when it landed softly and vanished into the cup for a hole in one, hollers and high fives broke the serenity. Yet the excitement that filled the air that day paled next to the joy Orton felt on Aug. 19 when the Broncos signed him to a one-year contract extension that could bring him $12 million over the next two years.

Few quarterbacks have been as undervalued as Orton in recent years. Despite ranking eighth among active QBs in career winning percentage (he's 29--19 as a starter, 60.4%), third in winning percentage at home (19--5, 79.2%) and fifth in red-zone touchdown-to-interception differential (39 TDs, three picks inside the 20), he'd never been the highest-paid QB on his team and was viewed mostly as a capable stopgap until someone better could be found.

Orton led the Bears to an NFC North title as a rookie in 2005 and was 9--6 as Chicago's starter in 2008, but even so the organization was committed to former first-round pick Rex Grossman, who had a stronger arm but lacked the challenger's efficiency and leadership skills. Sent to Denver last year as part of the Jay Cutler deal, Orton had the sixth-most-productive season ever for a Broncos quarterback (3,802 passing yards) and tied Hall of Famer John Elway's club mark of 10 games with a passer rating above 90. Nevertheless, in March, Denver dealt for former Browns first-round pick Brady Quinn, and the next month the Broncos, in the most surprising move of the 2010 draft, traded up in the first round to select Florida icon Tim Tebow.

"I've said before that I've always been underappreciated outside my locker room but very appreciated inside it," Orton, a Broncos captain in 2009, noted before the extension was signed. "It's a double-edged sword. Nowadays you kind of get left behind if you're not a self-promoter. That's not my personality. I'd rather be out of the limelight. But at some point it does hurt you from a financial standpoint if you're not putting yourself out there."

Coach Josh McDaniels said the addition of Quinn and Tebow was meant to challenge everyone at the position rather than challenge Orton's hold on the job. "We don't go into the off-season saying, 'Let's address every position but quarterback because we might offend whoever is playing that spot,' " McDaniels says. "We've got to try to push [the quarterback] too. To me, the way Kyle has responded is more important than any perceived message."

Orton has had the best camp of his career. He appears comfortable and authoritative in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. The knock on him always has been arm strength, but all through August he was zipping balls into windows as few thought he could do.

The surge in form is due in part to good health. When he arrived in Denver last year, Orton still was bothered by a lingering injury to his left ankle. Just when he began to feel fully recovered, he sprained his right ankle in a Nov. 15 loss at Washington. Rather than sit and heal, Orton played on, to the detriment of his numbers. He failed to record a passer rating in excess of 100.0 after doing it four times in the first nine games.

Orton and the rest of the offensive players are also now more familiar with McDaniels's complex playbook. In 2009 Orton often had a split second of uncertainty because he was thinking not only about whether he was doing the right thing, but whether his receivers were in the right place, too. At times, wideouts were more concerned with getting open themselves than with creating opportunities for teammates. "It's hard to tell a guy to run a route not to get open; that's going to take a little bit of practice," says receiver Eddie Royal, chuckling. "But we now understand the offense, and how based on certain coverages we have to give ourselves up for a bigger play to a guy behind us."

Based on his performance in the preseason and at training camp, Orton could be poised for a career year. If he plays well, that would also allow the Broncos to bring along Tebow at a controlled pace, and it would reaffirm McDaniels's message that hard work pays off. "He's a great example of what we tell the team every single spring, every single training camp and every single regular season as it starts: The best players will play," the coach says. "I don't care when they were drafted, what their salary is, how many years they've been in the league. Our job is to win games, and the only way I know how to do that is to try to get the best 11 on every snap. I think this situation has made [Orton] a better player." And made him feel wanted for the first time in his career.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH JOSH MCDANIELS

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 15

QB KYLE ORTON

G 16

ATT 541

COMP 336

PCT 62.1

YARDS 3,802

TD 21

INT 12

RATING 86.8

RB KNOWSHON MORENO

G 16

ATT 247

YARDS 947

AVG 3.8

REC 28

YARDS 213

AVG 7.6

TTD 9

FB SPENCER LARSEN

G 9

ATT 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

REC 0

YARDS 0

AVG —

TTD 0

WR EDDIE ROYAL

G 14

REC 37

YARDS 345

TTD 2

WR JABAR GAFFNEY

G 16

REC 54

YARDS 732

TTD 2

TE DANIEL GRAHAM

G 16

REC 28

YARDS 289

TTD 1

LT RYAN CLADY

G 16

HT 6'6"

WT 325

LG ZANE BEADLES (R)

G 13

HT 6'4"

WT 305

C J.D. WALTON (R)

G 12

HT 6'3"

WT 305

RG CHRIS KUPER

G 15

HT 6'4"

WT 303

RT RYAN HARRIS

G 8

HT 6'5"

WT 300

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 7

DE RYAN MCBEAN

G 14

TACKLES 25

SACKS 0

INT 0

NT JAMAL WILLIAMS

G 1

TACKLES 3

SACKS 0

INT 0

DE JUSTIN BANNAN

G 16

TACKLES 35

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB MARIO HAGGAN

G 16

TACKLES 63

SACKS 1

INT 0

LB D.J. WILLIAMS

G 16

TACKLES 122

SACKS 3½

INT 0

LB AKIN AYODELE

G 16

TACKLES 71

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB ROBERT AYERS

G 15

TACKLES 19

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB CHAMP BAILEY

G 16

TACKLES 74

SACKS 0

INT 3

FS BRIAN DAWKINS

G 16

TACKLES 116

SACKS 0

INT 2

SS RENALDO HILL

G 15

TACKLES 59

SACKS 2

INT 2

CB ANDRE' GOODMAN

G 16

TACKLES 44

SACKS 1

INT 5

SPECIAL TEAMS

P BRITTON COLQUITT*

PUNTS 42

AVG 43.4

NET N/A

K MATT PRATER

FG 30--35

XP 32--32

POINTS 122

PR EDDIE ROYAL

RET 30

AVG 11.2

TD 1

KR EDDIE ROYAL

RET 26

AVG 23.9

TD 1

New acquisition

(R) Rookie *2008 college stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 8--8

September

12 at Jacksonville

19 Seattle

26 Indianapolis

October

3 at Tennessee

10 at Baltimore

17 N.Y. Jets

24 Oakland

31 vs. San Francisco*

November

7 BYE

14 Kansas City

22 at San Diego (M)

28 St. Louis

December

5 at Kansas City

12 at Arizona

19 at Oakland

26 Houston

January

2 San Diego

(M) Monday *in London

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 24

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .484

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 6

ANALYSIS

Don't look for a hot start like last year's 6--0, with tough tests—the Colts, Ravens and Jets—coming in the first six games, before Denver faces its first divisional opponent. Can quarterback Kyle Orton emerge from that brutal stretch unscathed? And can the Broncos handle their AFC West rivals at Invesco? Denver was 0--3 at home and 3--0 on the road within the division in 2009.

SPOTLIGHT

Robert Ayers, Linebacker

THE defensive player the Broncos could least afford to lose sustained a potentially season-ending tear of his pectoral muscle in the first week of training camp. Denver is hoping that outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who led the league in sacks in 2009 with 17 and had 43 in his first four seasons, can return late in the year. In the meantime all eyes will be on Robert Ayers, the second of the Broncos' two first-round draft picks last year.

Ayers was a nonfactor in 2009. He started only one game, finished with just 19 tackles and failed to register a sack despite playing mostly on passing downs. And he raised eyebrows in the off-season when he was benched for the first two days of full-squad minicamp because of a "coaching decision."

Ayers, 24, appears to have matured since then. The 6' 3", 274-pound former Tennessee Volunteer showed flashes of fulfilling his potential in training camp and even broke through for a half sack—his first as a pro—in the second preseason game, at Detroit. He's projected to be an every-down player this year, and he'll have to make his presence felt if the Broncos are to challenge for the AFC West title. No one on the 2010 roster outside of Dumervil had more than four sacks last season. If Ayers doesn't step up, Denver will have to take more risks to get to the quarterback, and that could create more big-play opportunities for opponents.

PHOTODAVID BERGMANNO LIE Lightly regarded throughout his career, Orton is 29--19 as a NFL starter. PHOTORON CHENOY/US PRESSWIRE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)