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.