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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Kyle Orton and Cedric Benson- Lovie and Ron's Fault?

My God, that's Hideous.

I've been hearing a lot the last few weeks how Lovie Smith and Ron Turner should be under scrutiny since they seem to be the most likely candidates as to why Cedric Benson and Kyle Orton didn't perform as well in Chicago as they have in their new towns. This is Grade A bullshit, and I'll tell you why. Let's start with the Patron Saint.

I've said all along that Josh McDaniels' offense is the perfect scheme for Kyle's strength. It makes use of multiple wide receiver sets, it features a lot of underneath throws and crossing routes, it makes the most of his two good runningbacks (Buckhalter and Moreno, who've combined to give Denver the league's 4th ranked rushing attack), and his four quality wide receivers (Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokely, and Jabar Gaffney), and his two quality tight ends (Daniel Graham, Tony Sheffler). The Broncos offense is basically the closest you'll find to a true spread offense anywhere in the NFL, and that naturally favors our friend Kyle, who ran the "basketball on grass" spread offense of Joe Tiller at Purdue.

A lot of people act like McDaniels' version of the spread, which has worked so well in New England, is the first version of it to hit the NFL. It's not. The Run and Shoot was pretty much the same attack back in the '80s and '90s. A closer version to a pure spread like the ones seen in the NCAA came to our very own Bears in 1999 under Gary Crowton. Remember 1999? The Bears actually had the 3rd ranked passing offense (yardage wise) in the NFL, which was the team's highest finish in that category in the modern era, and that was with the pathetically weak arms of Shane Matthews and Cade F%&king McNown at the helm for 13 games. That team scored just 17 ppg and went 6-10, however. The reason for this was the criticism common to all spread offenses- that they struggle in the red zone.

The problem is that when teams move from the "bend but don't break" philosophy that most defenses are forced to employ to their red zone defenses, the underneath stuff is taken away and teams have to revert to conventional out routes agains tighter coverage, the kinds of throws that NFL quarterbacks are made of. Orton, as we know, struggles with these, and the Broncos offense is a perfect example of the tendency of spread offenses to rack up yards and not points. The Broncos, despite Orton's 1,236 passing yards and the great run game leading to a 6th place ranking in total yards, are just 22nd in the league in scoring at 19.8 ppg.

This offensive scheme worked in New England two years ago and many people took it as proof that the spread could consistently succeed in the NFL. This isn't quite true. The Patriots attack of 2007 worked because it had in Tom Brady and Randy Moss a quarterback who can make all of the throws and a holy terror of a wide receiver. This opened up countless opportunities for Wes Welker underneath and made the whole spread work. Orton, no matter his great stats, isn't Tom Brady. Teams still don't have to cover every inch of the field, and the threat of the deep ball isn't a factor on every single play. Right now the Broncos are getting by on defense, and this offense is controlling the clock and scoring just enough points to win. At some point that probably won't be enough. The Broncos defense isn't the 2000 Ravens or the 2002 Bucs. They'll need an offense that can challenge downfield to win a big game, either to get into the playoffs or to win in the playoffs. We'll see if that works out.

This still doesn't address the original point, I suppose. Why wasn't Kyle Orton as successful in Chicago as he has been in Denver? My answer: He was. Throw out Kyle's rookie season, where he played the most conservative offense I've ever seen, and for good reason, and let's just focus on 2008. As I've mentioned, the 2009 Broncos are averaging 19.8 ppg, good for 22nd in the league. The 2008 Bears averaged 23.4 ppg, good for 14th in the NFL. Also interesting to note, here are Orton's current stats:

5 games, 5 games started, 104 of 165 (63.0%), 1236 yards, 7.5 ypa, 247.2 ypg, 7 tds, 1 int, 97.4 rating.

Now compare that to Orton's stats last year before his ankle injury:

7 games, 7 games started, 143 of 230 (62.2%), 1669 yards, 7.3 ypa, 238.4 ypg, 10 tds, 4 ints, 91.4 rating.

Now, his numbers in Denver are slightly better, but there's no doubt that Ron Turner's offense wasn't the complete misuse of Orton's skills we've been led to believe. Orton's ankle injury changed his entire throwing motion and the team's fortunes. He was hesitant to step into throws, he was less mobile, the offensive line wore down as the season went on (they gave up 19 sacks in the second half of the season, as opposed to 10 in the first half), and Kyle's stats went into decline. It's true that Orton isn't the perfect fit for the vertical based Coryell offense that Turner would prefer to run, and that the Bears scheme has worked best under strong armed passers like Erik Kramer, Rex Grossman (at least Good Rex), and now Jay Cutler. But Turner isn't a moron completely incapable of handling a quarterback like Kyle. Hell, he was able to adjust his scheme enough to allow the weak armed Steve Walsh to guide the Bears to the playoffs in 1994. It's just a system that traditionally works best when it has a downfield element, as exemplified by the original Coryell quarterback, Dan Fouts.

It's true that Orton is playing great in Denver, and I for one am happy for him. The problem is in ignoring the complexities of NFL offensive systems and also in paying too much attention to yardage and quarterback rating and not to scoring. The Bears under Cutler, for example, are scoring 26.2 ppg, good for 7th in the NFL, despite their 22nd overall ranking in yardage (which should improve anyways as the year goes on and one strong or weak performance won't represent a drastic rise and fall in the rankings, as the Bears' yardage numbers were hurt by consistently playing on a short field against Detroit...which is a good thing, but I digress). I'm not denying that Orton fits better in McDaniels' system, but Turner used him just fine, and has also been quite successful with his new quarterback as well. So once more, no, the Bears would Not be better with Orton, and no, it's not Ron Turner's fault.

As for Benson, well, his problems were less to do with schemes than with attitude, and I'm saving That article for next week's buildup to the Bengals.

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