ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –If Kyle Orton never takes another snap for the Broncos, his final play with the team would seem an apt coda to a sometimes-symphonic but ultimately forgettable 33-game run as starting quarterback: a kneeldown.
It was all the Broncos could do at the end of a bad 30 minutes of football that was only saved by their first touchdown on an interception return in nearly five years. They were at their 20-yard-line after the kickoff, and with two timeouts and 12 seconds remaining, could have picked up 30 yards on a pair of passes down the middle to set up Matt Prater for an implausible, but not impossible, field-goal attempt.
Instead, the playcall was a capitulation to a 23-10 deficit, and the Broncos couldn’t be blamed at all. Not when they hadn’t hit a pass play for more than 10 yards all day, and not when the 13 passes they’d executed to that point had averaged a piddling 2.6 yards — with the last five pass plays averaging 0.8 yards.
It could have been worse — Broncos coach John Fox once watched a rookie quarterback, the forgettable Randy Fasani, finish with a 0.0 quarterback rating during a 2002 game against Tampa Bay.
But Orton didn’t have the excuse of being an overmatched newcomer like Fasani. Veterans who represent the experienced option in a quarterback competition can’t post a 21.0 first-half rating — with four interceptions, three of which were his fault, in the previous six quarters — and expect to keep their jobs.
Two days later, Orton could only accept his new role. A different place on the practice field. A different spot in the quarterback rotation. And the undeniable notion that with his contract expiring after this year, Orton will almost certainly move on, his next team being his third in five seasons, his career path thus traipsing dangerously close to “journeyman” status.
“I’m disappointed in everything,” Orton said. “I wish I could have played better. I wish we had a better record. I wish a lot of things. But reality is what it is.”
Orton didn’t share the details of the conversation with John Fox where he learned the news. That was where the parallels with past in-season quarterback changes stopped; there would be no emotions laid bare as they were on Dec. 25, 2002, when then-coach Mike Shanahan told Brian Griese that his days as the Broncos’ starting quarterback were done.
There also wouldn’t be any drama of a quarterback change being leaked to the NFL Network as was the case in 2006, when word of Jake Plummer’s imminent benching broke on the day of the Broncos’ Thanksgiving contest with the Chiefs. Plummer played poorly, the Broncos lost and the quarterback was replaced, 7-4 record be damned.
This change was handled quietly and with dignity.
Orton met the media and patiently answered questions, pledging to “work as hard as I can to make sure where my game is where it needs to be and be ready to go,” just in case he was needed in the future.
Fox explained that it was about wins and losses; as he said, “we do have to make adjustments and we do have to change, and we have to do something to win football games.”
Other quarterback changes in recent Broncos history saw drama and intrigue inside the palace walls. In this one, the drama was in the grandstands and the public square. Thus, it will be easier to move forward.