November 9, 2009
DENVER • Kyle Orton walked off the field after a befuddled performance.
He had thrown three interceptions. He had led the Denver Broncos offense to three — count ’em — points. He had delivered a heavy dose of fear to Broncos fans everywhere.
Was the team’s shocking start just a mirage?
Here’s the strange thing about Orton’s slow walk:
No one was booing. Several thousand Pittsburgh Steelers fans were hugging and dancing and loving life, but no one was booing. Broncos fans had been wise enough to escape Invesco Field.
That was Orton’s greatest accomplishment on this long night. He chased away tens of thousands of fans, along with millions of bored Monday Night Football viewers.
For much of the season, we’ve heard about what Kyle Orton doesn’t do.
He doesn’t make stupid throws.
He doesn’t act like a diva.
He doesn’t, in other words, in any way resemble Jay Cutler.
But after Orton’s sorry performance in the Broncos’ 28-10 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s obvious he doesn’t frighten opposing defenses.
Three weeks ago, the Broncos were cruising with a 6-0 record, a 31/2-game lead in the AFC West and the adoration of virtually every human on the Front Range.
Orton was the lead hero of the team’s revival. He was the thinking man’s quarterback. He was the humble leader who bonded with his teammates, unlike the aloof Cutler. He didn’t make dazzling, super-human throws, but he did just enough to win.
Then something strange happened to Orton and the NFL’s surprise team:
The offense vanished.
The Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers all but devoured the Broncos offense. Orton completed 46 passes during two depressing losses, but his low-risk approach brought low rewards.
“Certainly,” Orton said in the understatement of the week, “the offense hasn’t been doing its part.”
Orton doesn’t stand alone in the offensive wreckage. The Broncos rushed for a total of 93 yards against the Ravens and the Steelers, leaving Orton vulnerable to rampaging pass rushers.
But Orton does stand at the front of the offensive villains. This game could have been different. The Broncos defense delivered three solid quarters and scored Denver’s only touchdown.
Meanwhile, Orton and his offense did almost nothing after moving to a field goal on the opening drive. Orton was under constant pressure, which is a given when a quarterback faces the ultra-aggressive, ultra-violent Steelers.
But Orton was lacking in nerve. He ducked away from pressure, declining to step into the rush. He refused to take the risks required to puncture the Steelers defense.
With 7:32 left in the third quarter, Orton returned to the sideline after missing Daniel Graham and Brandon Marshall on consecutive throws. He was greeted by an animated Josh McDaniels, who shouted in Orton’s ear for several seconds.
I’m not a lip reader, but it’s a safe bet McDaniels wasn’t singing Orton’s praises. At the time, the Broncos trailed, 14-10, and a rally remained possible.
McDaniels’ pep talk didn’t work. Orton quickly threw two interceptions, destroyed any chance for a Denver victory and left a massive question mark in the mind of any clear-thinking Broncos fan.