On Tuesday, it was reported that the Dallas Cowboys are releasing Kyle Orton. The news came as no great surprise. Orton hadn’t appeared at any the Cowboys’ off-season minicamps and there were reports that the quarterback is intent on retiring. Better that than suffer the indignity of battling Brandon Weeden for a reserve role.
If this is indeed the end, let us not allow Kyle Orton to fade into obscurity without first appreciating all that he did for us. Kyle Orton may be fortunate to live on even as a footnote in NFL history, but if he does it will be the drunkest, neckbeardiest footnote there ever was.
Orton arrived in the NFL as a fourth-round pick of the Bears in 2005. Given that the Sex Cannon was the established starter at the time, Orton was expected to have little if any immediate impact (even if in retrospect that sounds kind of funny). But a preseason injury to Rex Grossman swept Orton into a starting role, in which he… well, he was an even bigger liability than Grossman.
The Bears nevertheless had a great season. It helped that the roster was stacked at just about every position other than quarterback. Chicago won 11 games even though Orton passed for just 1,869 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 starts. The Bears made the playoffs for the first time in four years, though by the time the postseason arrived, Grossman had returned to reclaim the starting position. Just in time to get upset in the Bears’ opening playoff game to the Panthers.
If Orton at this point was little more than an unremarkable stopgap quarterback, his drinking was quickly elevating him to the stuff of legend. That this legend grew as quickly as it did had a lot to do with this period coinciding with the rise of the sports blogosphere. Unlike many athletes at the time who were dismayed anytime their exploits appeared online, Orton seemed to take it in stride. To quote a 2006 Will Leitch Deadspin post, “For the record, we admire Kyle’s attitude about drunk pictures of himself showing up on the Web, saying, essentially, ‘hey, whaddya gonna do? Doesn’t effect me.’ If only more athletes were like Kyle and didn’t take themselves so darned seriously.”
Orton didn’t see action on the field for another two years, which only gave him time to hone his drinking game. He was like the Johnny Manziel of his time, if you took away the skill, the good looks and the celebrity friends.
By 2008, it was clear that the Bears had soured on Grossman, whose play was becoming increasingly erratic since costing the team the Super Bowl two years prior. The Sex Cannon was about to hit free agency that year, but expressed an interest to returning to Chicago. So the Bears rewarded him with a one-year deal and a chance to battle Orton for the starting job during training camp. Orton won.
It was around this time that Orton, perhaps realizing a hard-partying reputation isn’t conducive for a starting quarterback, starting pledging to lead more of a clean, business-first life devoid of drunk pictures appearing on the Internet. That vow, like his stint as the Bears starter, proved to be short-lived.
In the 2008 season, Orton had remained the Bears starter throughout, nearly leading them back to the playoffs. In the one game where Grossman relieved him due to injury, Rex was booed viciously by the Chicago crowd even though he ended up scoring the winning touchdown on a quarterback sneak.
But that wasn’t enough for Orton to retain the job. The next year, the Bears saw an opening to finally get what seemed like the franchise quarterback that has eluded the team forever. Discord between Jay Cutler and the Broncos front office made him available and the Bears pulled off a massive deal to acquire Cutler, sending two first-round picks, along with Orton, to the Broncos for the big-armed sulkyface.
Orton was still a starter, albeit once again a transitional one warming the seat until a long-term answer could be found. To his credit, Orton did fairly well (or at least better than expected) as a starter in Denver. He even got a bit of luck early on. His first game with the Broncos ended this way:
After starting 6-0, the Broncos proceeded to miss the playoffs by losing their final four games and finishing 8-8. The next season, Denver did far worse, though Orton had the best statistical season of his career. Throwing for 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Orton posted a QB rating of nearly 90 (not great though certainly serviceable). It wasn’t enough to compensate what was one of the worst defenses in the NFL that season.
And so Orton was replaced as starter for the final three games of 2010 by Tim Tebow.
The less said about what happened over the next year is perhaps best. Suffice it to say, Tebow’s fanatics not only forced Orton out of the starting role but out of Denver altogether. Midway through 2011, he brought on by Kansas City to serve as a fill-in after Matt Cassel suffered a season-ending hand injury in November.
Inexplicably, the 5-8 Chiefs, with Orton under center, bested the then-undefeated defending champion Green Bay Packers 19-14 in Arrowhead. Orton had a decent performance (23-for-31 for 299 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions) while the Chiefs defense was suffocating. It was true to form for all of positive moments of Orton’s career. He had game managed real good.
Two weeks later, Orton had a chance to exact a measure of revenge against the Broncos. If the Chiefs defeated Tebow and the Broncos in Week 17, Denver could miss the playoffs yet again in the late-season fashion to which the team had become accustomed in recent years.
The Chiefs lived up to their end of the bargain. They beat Denver 7-3 in a dreadful game in Mile High. The Raiders, being the Raiders, failed to defeat the Chargers to clinch the division. The Broncos made the playoffs anyway, with a record of 8-8.
After that, it was clear that the Chiefs had no interest in Orton beyond a temporary fill-in and Orton was looking for a more secure job, even if it meant one where he had no chance to become the starter. So he signed a three-year deal with the Cowboys to back-up Tony Romo.
Orton only started one game and threw a total of 61 passes in his two seasons in Dallas. He had also lost his signature neckbeard, replaced with a disturbing effort at growing his hair out.
The drinking exploits had stopped or at least they stopped leaking to blogs quite as often. Fans still loved the occasional sideline shot of Orton because it was like seeing an old college drinking buddy years later in his drab career in middle management.
We hope, in post-football life, he keeps the party going for a while and doesn’t look back much sadness at his NFL career, because honestly, despite being usurped a few times, Orton didn’t have a terrible run for himself. Many fourth-round picks have certainly fared worse.
We’ll miss ya, Neckbeard. Spill some Jack on your shirt for us, buddy.