I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of the website SmartFootball.com. Chris Brown (not a rapper) does a better job with X's and O's than anybody else in the blog world (and certainly better than anything you're going to get on ESPN. But that's what you get when you hire Trent Dilfer to explain strategy.) Last year Chris wrote this article explaining how the Patriots' spread offense works in the NFL and specifically the things they do with Wes Welker in order to make the offense work.
Through three games the Patron Saint has put up 1,078 yards. Add that to his 3,802 yards from last year and Kyle's got almost 5,000 yards passing and a 257 ypg average as a Denver Bronco to go along with a 62.3 completion %, 7.3 YPA, and an 88.7 rating, all of which far exceed his averages as a Bear (55.3% completions, 161.2 YPG, 5.8 YPA, 71.1 Rating).
How is Kyle racking up these yards at such an alarming rate? It's all about the way Josh McDaniels schemes to get his receivers wide open. If you watch, the Broncos use a lot of play action and even the occasional roll out as well as numerous crossing routes and multiple wide receiver sets to create mismatches and get Kyle wide open guys on easy throws with plenty of room to move. Or, as Chris puts it:
"Critics say that all Welker does is catch a ton of short passes, as if that were something to regret. Bill Belichick is merely playing to Welker’s strengths, and the very point of the Pats’ pro-spread is to stretch the defense sideline to sideline — throw short, throw short and throw short, that is, until a defender jumps an underneath route, allowing Brady to find another receiver running free downfield."
Replace Welker with Gaffney or Brandon Lloyd and you get basically the same answer. The Broncos make extensive use of the pivot, drive, and levels plays that Chris talks about and charts in that article, so I'd suggest giving it a quick look through. Last year, according to footballoutsiders, Orton threw short passes or medium passes about 85% of the time. This year the Broncos are still doing the same things but with even greater success between the 20s. Watching the game yesterday, I think the only pass that actually traveled over 25 yards in the air was the 38 yarder to Lloyd, but Orton still has 13 completions this year of 25 yards or greater thanks to a tremendous job of finding guys in space.
Now, lord knows I've spent the last year and a half waffling between trying to maintain my support for Kyle, a player I genuinely like, and my desire to see the Denver Broncos fail in order to shut up the mouthbreathers who decide to throw out Kyle's great numbers with Denver every time Cutler throws an interception. More than once I've tried to explain why Kyle's been having the success he's having in Denver and yet why it's a bit misleading as the Broncos have struggled to score despite consistently large outputs in the yardage category. The money line has always been something like this:
"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."- That quote was from last October, but the point remains. Over his last seven games Kyle has averaged 322 yards passing and yet the Broncos are just 1-6 in those games and have only averaged 21 ppg.
The issues remains the same: red zone problems. The reason the Patriots went from 35 ppg in 2007 to 25 ppg in 2008 under Matt Cassel despite only dropping to 5th in the NFL in yardage was because of Matt Cassel's limitations. Cassel, like Orton now, struggles when defenses tighten up in the red zone and they run out of room to throw underneath. The inability of either team to run the ball (a common problem for spread offenses that college teams have solved only by featuring running QBS) all that successfully is yet another problem.
Kyle Orton hasn't magically become a world-beating quarterback. We didn't imagine the physical limitations that he has. Sure Ron Turner didn't utilize him as well as McDaniels has, but the end result (3.9 touchdown % in 2008 with the Bears, 3.9% in 2009 with the Broncos, 3.2% in 2010, 23.4 PPG for the 2008 Bears, 20.4 PPG for the 2009 Broncos, 20.3 for the 2010 Broncos) has been largely the same. Orton still can't make difficult throws against tight coverage, and that is why Josh McDaniels made the erroneous decision to draft Tim Tebow, and why I'd still rather have Jay Cutler.