As the calendar turns from October to November this weekend, there are only three undefeated teams remaining in the NFL: the New Orleans Saints, the Denver Broncos, and the Indianapolis Colts.
Any guesses what they have in common?
(Very good: I was hoping that you'd already read the headline!)
The Saints, Broncos, and Colts rosters all feature ex-Purdue quarterbacks, namely Drew Brees, Kyle Orton, and Curtis Painter.
Now, while Painter is a rookie third-stringer who has yet to take a snap in 2009, both Brees and Orton have started every game for their respective clubs.
Purdue University has long been known as the "Cradle of Quarterbacks", turning out such well-known passers as Bob Griese, Mark Herrmann, Jim Everett, Len Dawson, Gary Danielson, etc.
That reputation was continued, if not strengthened, during the Joe Tiller era. His 12 years at the helm of the Boilermaker football program divided up perfectly into the Brees years (Drew played sparingly in 1997 and started the next three seasons), the Orton years (Kyle took over halfway through 2001 and started the next three seasons), and finally, the Painter years (Curtis became the starter in the middle of the 2005 campaign and started the next three years).
So while Tiller deserves a great deal of credit for resurrecting the Purdue program and taking his team to 10 bowl games in 12 years, his award-winning quarterbacks also have a lot to do with his sparkling record in West Lafayette, and they're proving their worth playing on Sundays as well.
The success of the Saints' and Broncos' offenses in particular begs the question: what makes a Purdue quarterback special? Why are Boilermaker signalcallers so effective?
Allow me to list three traits (shared by Brees, Orton, and many quarterbacks who have donned the Old Gold and Black) that translate to success at every level of football.
While any quarterback becomes the de facto leader of his team, some are more respected than others, and the special few become true leaders of their ball clubs in a short amount of time, usually by example.
Brees and Orton both illustrate the importance of leadership at the quarterback position. Orton was forced into the Bears starting lineup as a first-year player in 2005 (due to a Rex Grossman injury), and while he didn't put up monster numbers, he won football games for his veteran team. When all was said and done, Orton led the Bears to 10 wins in 15 starts during his rookie campaign, including a shocking eight-game winning streak.
(How quickly we forget. If you listen to the media's surprised coverage of Orton's 6-0 start this season, would you think that he put together an even longer string in his first year out of college? Probably not.)
Brees has demonstrated his leadership on and off the field, earning a reputation as one of the true "good guys" in the NFL. His volunteer and charity work, especially in helping Louisiana rebuild and recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is well-known, and Brees was named the 2006 Co-NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Many people have defined leadership as "setting a direction that others want to follow", and a good NFL quarterback has to exemplify this trait.
2. Ball Security
The high-powered Saints offense can overcome a few turnovers here and there, as they illustrated in a 46-34 comeback win this weekend at Miami (a game they trailed 24-3 at one point). However, it's difficult for any team to win with a consistently bad turnover ratio, and Brees has done a good job of limiting his team's mistakes.
The New Orleans quarterback is averaging just over one turnover a game (losing five interceptions and two fumbles in his team's first six outings), but the 36+ points per contest more than make up for the occasional miscue.
Out in Denver, Orton has been a near-perfect model of how to protect the football. He hasn't lost a fumble yet, and his only turnover in six games is an interception on a Hail Mary attempt at the end of a half.
When your quarterback hangs onto the ball, avoids costly turnovers, and makes solid decisions, your team will have a chance to win every time out.
3. Mental Toughness
Football fans may have learned the most about what makes Drew Brees and Kyle Orton tick when they nearly lost their NFL jobs. The Chargers were convinced first that Doug Flutie, then Philip Rivers, could outplay Brees under center. The Bears favored Rex Grossman over Orton, and then coveted Jay Cutler.
But, to be a great quarterback, one of the biggest prerequisities is mental toughness, and there was no way Brees or Orton would throw in the towel because their franchises under-appreciated them.
This trait, mental toughness, is probably the most important of the three: a quarterback can be a good leader, stay away from the turnover bug, and still have things go horribly wrong every now and again.
The final test of a great player is how they overcome adversity, and I knew back in their college days that Brees and Orton had all the mental toughness they would need to succeed.
How else do you explain Brees taking his 2000 Purdue team to a Rose Bowl? A lesser player would have given up against Michigan after putting together a potential game-winning drive and watching his place-kicker miss the go-ahead field goal from 32 yards away, potentially sending a special season down the tubes.
Instead, Brees led his team right back down the field to nearly the same spot and gave his kicker another chance on the final play.
A player without Orton's confidence would never have survived going from Heisman Trophy favorite to second-stringer in literally a matter of weeks in 2004. I learned something about Orton when he watched his team's first three quarters against Ohio State that year from the bench, then entered in the game's final minutes (after not having played for weeks) and promptly drove the Boilermakers to a game-winning touchdown.
Leadership...ball security...mental toughness...no, it's really not a mystery that ex-Purdue quarterbacks are winning every time out during this 2009 NFL season.
Maybe the real surprise will be if they ever lose.
This article is also featured on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football.
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