David Dunn, the agent for unlikely starting quarterback Kyle Orton of the Bears, knew he had a different kind of kid on his hands when, on their first flight together, the rookie quarterback pulled out a book: The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. "I read every chance I get, though I haven't had many chances lately," Orton said Sunday in a happy Chicago locker room. "I like Brokaw. I like his perspective on things. He's a Midwestern guy, like me."
The fact that Orton is a corn-fed Iowan who started 35 games at Purdue makes him a good fit for the Bears. A Midwestern kid quarterbacking the Midwest's team. It helps that Orton just might be able to play. Forced into a starting role when incumbent Rex Grossman broke his left ankle on Aug. 12 and backup Chad Hutchinson proved ineffective in the preseason, Orton has taken the reins with the unflappability of Tom Brady.
The seventh quarterback picked in April, Orton is the league's only rookie starting quarterback (and the first rookie QB to start opening day for the Bears since Zeke Bratkowski in 1954). Despite an above-average NFL arm, he fell to the fourth round thanks to a plodding 5.14-second time in the 40 at the scouting combine. But the Bears aren't relying on his feet. With a formidable defense that has allowed but 15 points in eight quarters, the Bears need Orton, more than anything, to be efficient. And in their 38-6 rout of the Lions at Soldier Field last Sunday, that's precisely what he was: 14 of 21, 150 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, a 103.3 rating and a couple of smart audibles.
Orton arrived at training camp fourth in the quarterback pecking order, behind veterans Grossman, Hutchinson and Kurt Kittner, meaning he spent no time throwing to the first-stringers. He didn't get the starting job until the final preseason game, which left him playing catch-up in many ways--some as simple as finding out how star wideout Muhsin Muhammad likes to catch out routes (hard, on his outside shoulder) or the proper attitude to take in a huddle full of veterans. "He was smart and respectful, the right presence," says guard Ruben Brown. "However he was taught in college was obviously right, because he didn't come in with too much ego."
But perhaps the most important lesson Orton has learned in two weeks of on-the-job training is to avoid mistakes. "There's a fine line between a play working and not working," he says. In Week 1 at Washington the Bears were trailing 9-7 late in the third quarter, at the Redskins' 22, when Orton tried to fire a laser to Muhammad in the end zone. The ball was intercepted, and the Bears never had as good a scoring opportunity again, losing 9-7. "Getting three points is real important down there," quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson told Orton when he came off the field, and the rookie resolved not to take a chance like that, in such a tight spot, again.
Fast-forward to Sunday against Detroit. The Bears led 17-6 with 1:20 left in the second quarter and were looking to break the game open before the half. On first down from the Detroit 28, the call was for Muhammad to run a post pattern from his split-right spot as Orton's first option. At the line the rookie saw Lions safeties Kenoy Kennedy and Terrence Holt on either side of the field in a two-deep zone. Orton's job, at the snap, was to stare down the left side to try to draw Holt over to that side of the field. Holt bit, and Orton saw Muhammad get his shoulder inside cornerback Fernando Bryant and take him upfield toward the post. Standing at the 34, the rookie fired a spiral with a little air under it toward the goal line. Perfect throw, right in stride to Muhammad, who was shielding Bryant from the ball. Touchdown, Bears-- Orton's first.
Four afternoons a week, a half hour before practice begins, Muhammad, a 10-year veteran, and Orton cut short lunch to work on pass routes together. "Some guys [just] go out and play," Muhammad said on Sunday. "Some guys know the game. Kyle's one of those guys who knows the game."
It's far too early to predict Orton's future, given the Bears' strange history at quarterback. From 2002 through '04 eight QBs started at least a game for Chicago: Jim Miller, Chris Chandler, Henry Burris, Kordell Stewart, Grossman, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel and Hutchinson. None of those eight are on the team's 53-man roster today. No wonder: Their combined three-year record was 16-32. Orton has a better arm than anyone in that bunch and is bright enough to master the offense. But this is Chicago: NFL Quarterback Wasteland. We just haven't seen enough of Orton to know if Sunday's game is a real beginning or fool's gold.
"You can feel this city is hungry for a winning quarterback, a winning team," says Orton. "I hope I can be that guy, but there's a huge amount of work to do. I haven't done anything yet."