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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kyle Orton Wasn't Better Than Jay Cutler

I still love ya both

During the season, I wrote this piece discussing the reasons why, despite Kyle's "superior" numbers at the time, the Broncos offense was actually no better than the Bears. While I made a few mistakes and a few wrong predictions (a running theme throughout last year), the overall point still stands: despite the yardage, the pro-style/spread hybrid offense that Josh McDaniels runs is just like any other offense: it takes good players to score a lot of points. This is what I said at the time:

"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."

All of that turned out to be true, for the most part. The Broncos defense, while it finished 12th in points allowed and 7th in yardage, was not as good in the second half as it was during that six game streak to start the season, and Orton and the offense failed to compensate by scoring more points. In the end, the Broncos were the league's 20th ranked offense in ppg at 20.4, despite being 13th in passing yards and 18th in rushing yards.

As we know, the Bears offense struggled under Jay Cutler. Cutler had a quarterback rating 10 points lower than Orton and threw 26 picks to Orton's 12, so clearly Orton had the better season, right?

Wrong. I'm actually going to fly in the face of most of my stat-based reasoning and state that it was, at worst, a wash, and at best, that Cutler was better.

Why? Because Orton's numbers are hollow. He had more yards than Cutler, he took fewer sacks, he had a much better running game in support, and yet the Bears offense outscored the Broncos. The Broncos scored 326 points last year. Subtracting the four special teams and defensive touchdowns they scored 298 points, or 18.6 ppg. The Bears scored 327 points. Minus the two touchdowns they scored on special teams (0 on defense), the offense scored 313, or 19.6 ppg. Neither total is outstanding, but it's curious that the Bears managed to outscore the Broncos despite having the 23 ranked offense in yardage to the Broncos 15th. The Bears outscored the Broncos despite turning the ball over 34 times, compared to 23 for Denver.

How did this happen? Well, here's my hypothesis: Cutler has the arm that Orton doesn't. The Bears, for all of their turnovers and struggles in the red zone, simply scored more touchdowns than the Broncos did. Sure, Orton may have thrown the ball away and gotten the team a field goal where Cutler threw an interception, but the fact is, Cutler got his team enough touchdowns that it didn't matter. He outscored Orton. Like I've said, the spread offense does a great job of helping an offense that would otherwise be completely inept move the ball. Those field goals certainly helped the Broncos. In order to take the next step, however, they need a quarterback who can take advantage when the defense tightens up and the underneath routes won't get you into the end zone. Jay Cutler could have been that guy.

I'm not saying Jay Cutler had a good year this year. I'm not really saying Kyle Orton had a bad year. For his abilities, it was a great year of doing what he does best, the oft-maligned cliché of "managing the game." The offense allowed the Broncos to stay in games and be respectable. Orton played as well as he could with a great supporting cast, but was ultimately unable to be a game-changing quarterback. Cutler played below his abilities in many cases, but was also let down by his offensive line. The best conclusion you can draw from all of this is that Bears fans who think they would have been better off with Kyle Orton last year are wrong, while Broncos fans who think they might have been better off with Jay Cutler are probably right.

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