All hail the Horseshoe

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 11, 2009



(Ed. note: See our stat-filled report from the CHFF Week 5 first-response team here.)
 
In a game-of-the-week that lived up to the hype on an otherwise abysmal Sunday for the NFL, Josh McDaniels took the blinders off the Horseshoe and watched as he paced the Broncos to a 20-17 victory over the Patriots.
 
OK, that's a couple of awkward horse metaphors. But it's no less true.
 
And, as the only site in America that didn't rip the Broncos for dumping Jay Cutler in favor of Kyle Orton (he'd be the Horseshoe), we take a certain amount of gridiron glee in Denver's 5-0 start and in its gut-check, come-from-behind victory over the seemingly unbeatable forces of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots.
 
We thought that Orton would prove his value as a game-manager this year if paired with a good defense. In fact, here are our exact words from our pre-season Iciest Issues: "If the Broncos can make big strides in improving that defense, they may find the game-manager type in Orton is a perfect match."
 
The Broncos have made big strides on defense. Orton has played smart, game-manager style football (7 TD with just 1 INT in 2009). The Broncos do stand at 5-0 and, more impressively, they're the only team in the NFL with three wins against Quality Teams. If that's not a perfect match, we don't know what is.
 
But to his credit, Orton was more than just the proverbial "game manager" against the Patriots. In fact, he was a major factor in the victory, with a career performance that should solidify him in the eyes of the pigskin public as a legit No. 1 QB. It was a victory for the Broncos. It was a victory for Orton. And, natch, it was a victory for the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
 
Here's why:
 
The Broncos trusted Orton with the ball
Orton on Sunday posted career highs in attempts (48) and completions (35) with 330 yards (four shy of his career best), 2 TDs and 1 INT (that's a 96.7 passer rating, for those of you keeping score at home).
 
More important than the physical performance, however, was the psychological one. McDaniels essentially said, "Sure, I'm a newbie NFL head coach and nobody thinks you're any good, Kyle. And, sure, we're playing against the most successful coach-QB combo of our time and nobody outside Denver thinks we can win. But I have faith that you can get the job done."
 
Orton got the job done.
 
Orton came through in the clutch
The Broncos scored 13 second-half points (the Patriots scored 0) to overcome what was a 17-7 deficit at intermission.
 
On Denver's game-tying drive in the fourth, it was all Orton: 10 of 12 plays were passes. He completed six for 76 yards, including an 11-yard scoring toss to Brandon Marshall.
 
In overtime, he made good on his first four attempts, moving the ball from his own 20 into New England territory, before a series of runs led to Matt Prater's game-winning 41-yarder.
 
The Patriots never touched the ball in overtime, while Orton made the big plays late when Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker & Co. did not.
 
Orton copied the old Tom Brady playbook
Back when Brady was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, before he became fixated on Moss and Welker, and before Patriots fans became fixated in big passing numbers, he spread the ball among his entire field of weapons better than any quarterback in the game. It wasn't uncommon to see days when virtually every eligible guy on the team, seven, eight, nine guys, caught a pass from Brady.
 
Orton found six different receivers in this game, including nine pass receptions by Brady's old teammates from the spread-it-around days, Jabar Gaffney and Daniel Graham.
 
Orton saw the field well. He took few chances. He consistently found the open receiver (including seven catches out of the tight end position and four receptions by rookie RB Knowshon Moreno). And he put points on the board when needed. It was a classic performance by a guy who doesn't have the arm strength of Favre or the pedigree of Peyton, but who somehow finds ways to win the game.
 
He's now a Brady-esque 26-12 (.684) as an NFL starter.
 
Orton overcame the doubters
About 75 percent of the pigskin public, prognosticators and "pundits" expected a New England victory.
 
In fact, the hackery was evident everywhere. In Eric Wilbur's blog at Boston.com, every single "expert" except the Cold, Hard Football Facts predicted a New England victory. Old friend Pete Prisco even anticipated a two-touchdown Patriots blowout.
 
It was a curious phenomenon:
  • A look at the data, at the Cold, Hard Football Facts, revealed that Denver was a better team and a surer bet to win.
  • A look at the data, at the Cold, Hard Football Facts, also revealed that the Patriots were still struggling to find their groove. In fact, most "pundits" and observers admitted as much about the Patriots.
Those two pieces of evidence tell us one thing: the faith the pigskin "pundits" and public had in a New England victory was not so much a belief in the Patriots as it was a disbelief in the Broncos.
 
The disbelievers must believe know. They can no longer critique the schedule or the quarterback or the coach. At least for now, the Broncos are the team to beat in the AFC. They're 5-0, like the Colts. But, unlike the Colts, the Broncos have actually been tested this season. 
  • Denver is the only team in the NFL with three wins over Quality Teams
  • Indy is the only team in the NFL that's yet to face a single Quality Team
A few words on "game managers" and "luck"
When discussing Orton, it pays to keep in mind that the phrase "game manager" is not an insult in the eyes of the Cold, Hard Football Facts. The term is used derisively elsewhere. But it should not be. In fact, "game manager" is the highest form of praise. Give us a game manager over a gunslinger every day of the week.
 
Put most simply, humble "game managers" cause victories while big-armed "gunslingers" cause heart attacks.
 
Bart Starr was a game manager. Joe Montana was a game manager. Tom Brady, Denver's victim on Sunday, was a game manager and still is when he's at his best. All three are counted by any objective measure as three of the best and most successful QBs in the history off the game.
 
Now, we're not saying Orton is as good as Starr, Montana and Brady. He's not. But you know the tools on the inter-webs. You make one comparison of unlike objects, and people extrapolate out to make the statement something it wasn't.
 
All we're saying is this: Orton is a game manager and has been successful so far, as evidenced by his aforementioned 26-12 record as a starter, no matter what the stat sheet says.
 
As for his status as "the Horseshoe," it's simply a reference to the fact that good fortune has seemed to follow Orton whether at Chicago or now in Denver. The fortuitous bounce of the last-second Week 1 win over Cincinnati prompted one CHFF reader to call Orton "the luckiest player in football" and, as a result, we dubbed him the Horseshoe.
 
(Yes, we realize it will cause confusion when the Horseshoe heads to Indy to face the Horseshoes on Dec. 13 ... kind of like when the Saskatchewan Roughriders used to face the old Ottawa Rough Riders in the imagination-challenged CFL).
 
In any case, lucky quarterbacks don't win consistently in the NFL. They might win once. But not every week.
 
When the ball bounces your way time and again, however, as it has many times for Orton, there's something more to it. The trend becomes a part of who you are.
 
And right now, Orton is not just lucky. He's playing extremely well as the legit leader of the most battle-tested 5-0 team in football.

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