ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Kyle Orton era has ended for the Broncos — in a fashion that could hardly have been conceived just two years earlier.
Tuesday, the Broncos shocked the league by placing their former quarterback on waivers, ending a two-and-a-half-year odyssey that was born in the controversial trade of Jay Cutler, soared early in his first season, tumbled in his second and then collapsed entirely in his third.
“We just thought it was best for the Broncos at this time, as well as giving Kyle an opportunity to catch on with another team,” executive vice president John Elway said on his weekly question-and-answer show on DenverBroncos.com Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the news broke.
“This was the right decision for our football team,” added coach John Fox in a statement. “We feel good about our quarterback group, and this gives Kyle an opportunity to help another team and showcase his talents. I wish Kyle and his family all the best going forward.”
Other teams have 24 hours to claim the balance of Orton’s contract, which is approximately $2.60 million, since he was given a one-year extension for 2011 by then-coach Josh McDaniels in August 2010. The Broncos paid him a $1.5 million roster bonus this summer and another $4.77 million for his 11 regular-season weeks of service this year.
If no one claims Orton by 2 p.m. MST Wednesday, the Broncos owe him the outstanding money on his contract, since he is a vested veteran.
The most obvious candidates to claim Orton are the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans and Orton’s former team, the Chicago Bears. Al of whom have lost quarterbacks to multi-week or season-ending injuries in the last nine days. The Chiefs have the highest waiver priority of the three teams, owing to their 4-6 record; the 7-3 Texans have the 25th priority; the 7-3 Bears have the 30th.
If Chicago or Kansas City claims Orton, it would mean a quick reunion between the Broncos and their former starting quarterback, since the Bears visit Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Dec. 11 and the Chiefs follow three weeks later. In either case, Orton would have a better chain of playing than he would have with the Broncos, since he was firmly behind Tim Tebow on Denver’s depth chart after being usurped at halftime of the 26-24 loss to San Diego in Week 5.
The benching marked a turning point to the Broncos, who were 1-3 at that point and trailed the Chargers by 13 points. While the Broncos’ offense has been only marginally more effective since then — scoring 17.8 points per 60 minutes compared to the 17.1 scored under Orton in Weeks 1-5 — the win-loss total in Tebow’s starts has been the reverse of Orton’s 1-4 ledger this year.
Further, Orton was responsible for seven interceptions and two fumbles, while Tebow has been on the hook for just one interception and two fumbles.
As a result, Orton was considered redundant — something that hardly seemed possible 25 months earlier.
Orton’s first season saw him lead the Broncos to a 6-0 start that placed them atop the AFC West and the entire league. With wins over four playoff teams, there was reason to believe it wasn’t a fluke, and his 100.1 rating and 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio placed him squarely among the league’s leaders.
The second phase of his Broncos career began after that quick start, as the Broncos collapsed into one of the league’s worst teams but Orton maintained a decent caliber of individual performance. During this stretch, which covered 23 games (and 22 starts) from November 2009 to Thanksgiving weekend 2010, he completed 477 of 776 passes for 5,707 yards, with a 32-to-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 88.6 rating. During that stretch, the Broncos went 5-16 (5-15 with Orton as a starter) and had three losing streaks of four games.
Then, in Week 13 of the 2010 season, the Broncos went to Kansas City for the second half of their annual season series, and Orton’s individual descent began. He only completed nine of 28 passes in a 10-6 loss; his completion percentage of 32.1 was the lowest for a Broncos quarterback who threw at least 20 passes since Norris Weese on Dec. 12, 1976. The next week at Arizona was even worse; although his completion percentage rose to 46.3, he threw three interceptions — matching his combined total of the previous eight games. Citing injury, the Broncos deactivated him the next week and didn’t play him the rest of the season, opting to start Tebow.
The opening games of 2011 were not much better for Orton, who was nearly traded to Miami at the start of training camp. His 8-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio after five weeks was among the league’s worst. Over his final seven starts as a Bronco, the team went 1-6 and his quarterback rating was a lowly 63.1.
With Orton gone, the Broncos-Bears trade of April 2009 now breaks down as follows:
QB Jay Cutler, still with team
Broncos’ 2009 fifth-round pick (WR Johnny Knox, still with team)
QB Kyle Orton, waived
Bears’ 2009 first-round pick (DE Robert Ayers, still with team)
Bears’ 2009 third-round pick (part of a trade with Pittsburgh for second- and fourth-round picks that became TE Richard Quinn and OL Seth Olsen, neither of whom are with the Broncos).
Bears’ 2010 first-round pick (traded to the 49ers for first- and fourth-round picks. The first-round pick was traded to the Eagles for their first-round pick and two third-rounders. The Eagles’ first-rounder was dealt to the Patriots for their first- and the 49ers’ fourth-round pick and used on Demaryius Thomas. The third-rounders became Eric Decker and one-third of a draft-pick trade to get the Ravens’ No. 25 pick, which became Tim Tebow.)