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Kyle Orton leads surprising Broncos to fast start

ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Sports Writer

ENGLEWOOD, Colorado – Peyton Manning, OK. Brett Favre, sure. Drew Brees, absolutely.

But Kyle Orton?

You bet.

These are the four quarterbacks who have led their teams to unbeaten records through the first six weeks of the season, and the most stunning of the bunch are the upstart Denver Broncos.

With a bye this weekend, the Broncos (6-0) will head into November without a loss thanks in large part to the quarterback fans figured was a bungler at worst or a stopgap at best after his acquisition from Chicago in the much-maligned trade for Jay Cutler and his bazooka arm.

A closer look reveals the effective if not flashy Orton belongs in the upper echelon of NFL passers, while the Broncos, by any measure, are among the league’s elite under rookie coach Josh “Midas” McDaniels.

With Minnesota (6-0), Indianapolis (5-0) and New Orleans (5-0) also perfect, the league hasn’t had this many unbeaten teams this deep into the season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

While the quarterbacks of those teams all fit the bill, Orton doesn’t look like an ascendant athlete, much less one of the league’s top quarterbacks.

With his splotchy beard and mustache and lanky build, he’s a spitting image for Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, but certainly doesn’t make as many of his fans swoon.

What Orton does is win.

He’s 27-12 as a starter. The only active passers with at least 25 starts who own a better winning percentage than his .692 mark are New England’s Tom Brady and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

Orton’s 18-2 home record as a starter is second to none in the last 40 years.

McDaniels guided Brady in his unbeaten season in New England two years ago and Matt Cassel during his 11-5 season last year when Brady was hurt. Under his tutelage, Orton is thriving, too.

He leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating with an astonishing 142.1 mark; touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-1; and lowest interception percentage (0.5) as he’s been picked off just once in 194 pass attempts. Even that comes with an asterisk, because it was a desperation pass at the end of the first half snared by New England’s all-world receiver Randy Moss, who was imitating a defensive back.

Nobody in Denver is crying for Cutler anymore.

So, what is it about Orton, considered nothing more than ordinary all those years in the Windy City, and McDaniels, panned after replacing Mike Shanahan for his boyish looks and brazen moves, that makes them such a good fit in the Rocky Mountains?

To run his intricate Patriots-style offense that changes radically week to week, McDaniels didn’t need anybody with a rocket arm. He required a brainy fellow who doesn’t make many mistakes, one with a good feel for deciphering defensive looks and reacting accordingly while being able to come up big near the end zone.

“I don’t think there’s one specific type of quarterback that fits our system. I think the quarterback has to be smart. He has to understand what we’re asking him to do, which is a lot,” McDaniels said. “We ask him to try to really know the defense each week. We ask him to do a considerable amount in the running game, and be accurate, take care of the football and finish drives in the red zone and get it to the guys we think need to have it.

“So, are there a lot of players that could do that? Probably. Are we really happy with Kyle? Yeah. Because Kyle does those things. He is smart. He takes care of the football. He reads defenses. He’s learning more and more every week.”

Just two months ago, fans were calling for Orton’s ouster and McDaniels’ head as they got off to a stumbling start in training camp. That month was marked by a disheartening loss to Cutler and Chicago at Invesco Field and a soap opera involving Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, who ultimately was suspended for insubordination.

While McDaniels was practicing tough love with Marshall, he was standing unflinchingly behind his new quarterback, who was having a tough time learning an entirely new offense.

Orton had a three-interception performance in the Broncos’ preseason opener at San Francisco following an awful stadium scrimmage that turned a night of fun into one of scorn. The next week, his odd left-handed lob on fourth-and-1 at Seattle was intercepted in the end zone.

All the while, McDaniels kept insisting Orton was doing just fine and would stay the starter.

“It was really the first time that I ever had that,” Orton said of his head coach’s unwavering support. “I know there was a lot made out of our first preseason game and everything. Just looking back, I’m happy that he stuck with me and had confidence in me. That obviously does a lot for a quarterback.”

McDaniels’ patience is paying off.

“A quarterback ultimately gets judged by that and wins and losses,” McDaniels said. “So, Kyle obviously has done a nice job so far.”

He isn’t alone.

Marshall has bounced back from his offseason of discontent and has four touchdown catches, including a 51-yarder against Dallas in which he avoided a half-dozen tackles as he zigzagged his way into the end zone. He put on a blocking clinic at San Diego last week that helped spring Broncos running backs.

Brian Dawkins, McDaniels’ top target in free agency, has transformed the defense, which ranked at or near the bottom in every defensive category a year ago and which now is the class of the league.

Led by former San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan, the Broncos rank first in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 11 points a game despite trying to mesh eight new starters.

He implemented a new 3-4 alignment and it’s worked wonders. Linebacker D.J. Williams leads the team in tackles even though he’s playing his fourth position in four seasons. Elvis Dumervil has thrived in his switch from end to outside linebacker, becoming the second-fastest player to reach 10 sacks since the league starting keeping the statistic in 1982.

Eddie Royal last week returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns against the Chargers, the prohibitive preseason pick to win the AFC West, but who already trail the Broncos by 31/2 games.

Knowshon Moreno leads all NFL rookies in rushing and is the only rookie so far who has both a TD catch and a TD run. Correll Buckhalter is averaging 6.7 yards a carry.

What’s most impressive about the Broncos’ return to respectability is they’ve outscored their opponents 76-10 in the second half and haven’t allowed a second-half, third-down conversion in the last four games.

Overall, opponents have converted just 2 of 35 third downs in the second half.

Credit conditioning – they went through training camp almost exclusively in full pads after Shanahan shunned them over the last few seasons – plus a burgeoning confidence, and shrewd coaching.

“One of the things at halftime that’s important is that you don’t have any knee-jerk reactions,” McDaniels said. “We haven’t always played our best football in the first half this year, but that has not always translated into us making wholesale changes at halftime. If you don’t play good football in the first half, you don’t necessarily have to come in and change the scheme – we’ve just got to play better.”

When they have had to make adjustments, they’ve panned out.

“We don’t need to go out there and have a walkthrough in order to make it go right,” McDaniels said.

So far, just about nothing has gone wrong in Denver.


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