Kyle Orton's Broncos Debut: Was It Really That Bad?

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Kyle Orton's Broncos Debut: Was It Really That Bad?
(Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The first preseason game of 2009 has been played. Most Bronco fans came away encouraged by offensive and defensive upgrades, but the overwhelming impressions many have of the game were formed by Orton’s three interceptions. Are they harbingers of football doom or merely the growing pains of a new system?

Clearly every Bronco fan was excited by the beginning of Denver’s first offensive drive. Orton went 7-of-8 in marching the Broncos from their own 28-yard line to the San Francisco 4. Then the wheels came off.

Orton’s first pass into the end zone was a bad read on his part. Instead of throwing the ball right to Daniel Graham, Orton led him into coverage. The result was an interception.

The next drive saw the 49ers ramp up their defensive coverage. Orton was 1-of-3 before making another bad read over the middle, when Dre Bly stepped in front of Brandon Stokley.

Orton’s very next pass was a slightly underthrown 24-yard pass down the sideline. Jabar Gaffney was open in an area about five yards behind the deep-zone defender and five yards past a mid-zone defender. Orton clearly underthrew the ball because he was worried about the deep defender coming up on Gaffney, leaving the ball just short enough for the athletic young Reggie Smith to make a great play on a third pick.

For the half, Orton went 9-of-16 for 89 yards with three interceptions. Should Denver fans be out in the streets with torches and pitchforks? Maybe not.

Last year Orton threw no interceptions in nine of the 15 games he played in. Orton’s worst season was his rookie season when he threw only 13 interceptions. 

A comparison of quarterbacks who had similar numbers of attempts last year shows Orton’s 12 interceptions as comparable with other quarterbacks like Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and others. Orton actually threw more touchdowns in 2008 than highly touted young quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco as well.

Since the Cutler trade, much has been heard about Orton’s tendency to throw interceptions, but the statistics show something very different. Why is this?

There could be a simple reason. 

Chicago fans had a Super Bowl team in 2006 largely led by a strong defense. The huge dropoff they had in 2007 and 2008 are usually blamed on Brian Griese and Kyle Orton, but both of those quarterbacks actually outperformed Grossman’s Super Bowl run effort.

The fact is that Chicago’s defense wasn’t as strong in the years after 2006 but because the quarterbacks they had weren’t winning games the passers got the blame. Orton, in particular, partly because he was so inexperienced, became a popular scapegoat, his every mistake magnified.

Orton’s own efficiency added to this perception. Though he only threw interceptions in six games, he threw two interceptions in four of those games and three interceptions in one of them. 

All but one of those multiple-interception games in 2008 were games in which Orton was sacked three or more times. In fact, Orton only throws three interceptions during the entire season in games in which he is sacked less than three times, that's only three interceptions in 11 games. This suggests that, when under pressure, Orton can be forced into bad decisions, but if he is given time he can be very efficient.

During the first Bronco preseason game, Orton was not only not sacked but hardly saw any significant pressure. He’ll see more pressure during the year but nothing like what he saw in Chicago.

His only obstacles are going to be learning the offensive system and getting used to his receivers. Give him time to develop rapport with his receivers, and the stats suggest that we’ll see very few mistakes over the course of the year.

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