KYLE ORTON'S biggest adjustment since his arrival in Denver five months ago in the Jay Cutler trade hasn't been to learn a playbook that's thicker than Paula Deen's Southern twang. No, the former Bear's biggest adjustment has been to ignore the stopwatch in his head each time he drops back to pass.
In Chicago, Orton says, "we were a three-step passing team. If my first read wasn't there, I had to get rid of it." In Denver, where the Broncos have one of the league's top tackle tandems in Ryan Clady on the left and Ryan Harris on the right, the pass protection is so good that Orton will have the chance to look to his second and third reads and possibly come back to his primary receiver. "Here, I've got so much time," he says. "It was hard for me to make that change in my mind."
Orton may have more time in the pocket this season, but his honeymoon with Denver fans could be brief. Many supporters are still upset about the team's decision to deal Cutler. Although the Broncos received two first-round picks, a third-round selection and Orton in the trade, to some it was essentially a straight-up swap of quarterbacks.
During one workout early in camp when Orton wasn't sharp, the boos were quick to come from an estimated crowd of 13,000. Imagine the response from the 76,000 at Invesco when he struggles during a game. There's also the matter of winning over teammates who were close to Cutler. "We had a great quarterback—one of the top five in the league," says sixth-year linebacker D.J. Williams. "[Losing Cutler] set us back a little bit. I would love to see Jay here, but we've got to work with the parts we've got now—and that's not to say they're not good enough or can't get the job done. They can."
Quarterback isn't the only issue in Denver. The defense, which allowed the third-most points in the league last year, is making the switch from a 4--3 scheme to a 3--4 with personnel not necessarily suited for the change. But insofar as the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, most of the scrutiny will be on Orton, a fourth-round pick of the Bears in 2005. The biggest knock on him is that he lacks the arm strength to stretch the field, although that wasn't apparent during one practice, when he overthrew speedy Eddie Royal on a deep post.
"Perception in this league is kind of comical," says Orton. "I can make every throw I ever need to make. We were in a running offense in Chicago that let the defense win games. [My statistics] might not have been what some of the other guys were putting up, but we won a lot of football games and did some good things."
First-year coach Josh McDaniels studied Orton extensively before bringing him in. What he saw was a player who was 21--12 as a starter despite throwing nearly as many interceptions (25) as touchdown passes (27) and who won an NFC North title in one of his two seasons as a full-time No. 1. He also saw that Orton was strong in one critical area in which Cutler and the Broncos struggled last season: red-zone turnovers. During his career Orton has thrown 22 touchdowns and only two interceptions inside the opponents' 20-yard line, while the Cutler-led Denver offense tied for the league lead with seven red-zone turnovers (four interceptions, three fumbles) last season.
The Broncos also signed free agent Chris Simms, but even he knows Orton's status is unquestioned. "It was probably best that Coach named him the starter in June," Simms says. "The feeling was, Let's get the focus on the team and worry about getting better. They traded Jay Cutler for [Orton]. If they'd named me the starting quarterback, people would have been saying, 'What's going on here?'"
And if Orton doesn't prove that McDaniels was right in changing quarterbacks, that question will be spreading throughout Denver this season.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS