Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Curious Case of Kyle Orton

Every sports fan knows who 'THAT guy' is on their team - the guy they blame when things go wrong, whether it's really their fault or not. I have many fond childhood memories of my father yelling at the television: "Brad, you bonehead!"

My dad's 'THAT guy' was Brad Miller, a player on Purdue's basketball team in the mid-1990's. Brad was good. Brad is still good (he's been in the NBA since 1998, and played for Team USA twice). Didn't matter. My dad loved yelling at Brad.

My first 'THAT guy' was Travis Dorsch, the kicker for Purdue's football team my freshman year. One of my fondest college memories is of sitting in the student section, waiting for Travis to punt out of his own endzone, and hearing the guy behind me scream, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TAKE THE SAFETY!"

I don't remember why we blamed everything on Travis back then, but we did. It was a joke we shared as a student fanbase. I even had a large lecture class with Travis that year. And you know what? He set the curve. Brilliant, all American academic guy who is currently working on his PhD. He was drafted in the 4th round of the 2002 NFL draft, right after David Garrard. DAVID GARRARD! Our 'THAT guy' kicker was drafted directly after quarterback David Garrard. Shocking.

Travis went to the Cincinnati Bengals just in time to make way for our new 'THAT guy' at Purdue: Kyle Orton. A Nebraska fan from Iowa, almost exactly a year younger than me, he had the audacity to attempt following in the footsteps of Drew Brees, patron saint of Purdue Quarterbacks. No pun, just fact.

Kyle was my truest of true 'THAT guy' players. We went through most of our Purdue careers together. We moved to Chicago at the same time. I feel we share a special bond, even though we've never met.

But here's the thing with 'THAT guy' - generally, he's better than you give him credit for.

Drew Brees's best year was the 2000 Rose Bowl year. The Boilers reached 9th in the national rankings, Drew was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, and his wild ride to winning Super Bowl MVP as a New Orleans Saint is well documented (and properly dramatic). Drew is dynamic, Drew is exciting to watch, Drew is a vocal and classy leader. We all love Drew.

On the other hand, Purdue fans wince a little when the Kyle Orton era comes up because we all immediately flash to the same moment in time: The 2004 Wisconsin Game.


Two side points:
* The caption below this video on YouTube says "Purdue has never been the same since." And that is 100% true.
* I was at this game live, so I'd never seen the way the announcers colored on the telestrator; enough time has passed for me to appreciate the hilarity. Nice work, guys.

But did you notice Purdue's ranking in the scorebox? They were ranked 5th in the nation going in to that game. I remember the 'experts' saying that if they'd won, they probably would have been ranked 1st. I also remember the 'experts' saying that if they won, Kyle Orton would have been a Heisman Trophy Candidate. I laughed really hard at the time. I also laughed really hard when I heard Kyle was entering the NFL draft.

Kyle was taken in the 4th round, after Alex Smith (who was considered a complete and total bust until he met Jim Harbaugh earlier this year), Aaron Rodgers (who is adorkable), and Charlie Frye and David Greene (who I don't think are in the league anymore).

Orton started as a rookie for the Chicago Bears after Sexy Rexy Grossman was injured in the preseason. I could not have been more delighted, drinking in every game like one of those people who watches auto racing just for the crashes. But Kyle played well enough as a rookie to get the Bears to the playoffs - then they shoved him aside for Rex, who hadn't played all year. And they lost in the first round.

Kyle played off and on for a couple more years, always doing better than I expected, but never well enough for Bears fans to forget the other quarterbacks on the roster.

Then the Jay Cutler thing happened.

The Bears traded Kyle (plus their jewelry and all of the spare change in their couch cushions) for cranky, petulant Jay Cutler. At that moment, Kyle Orton ceased to be my 'THAT guy' and I became perhaps his biggest advocate. For the first time, I saw a favorable comparison between Kyle Orton and Drew Brees. Drew had been tossed aside by the San Diego Chargers. He landed in New Orleans, found a perfect fit with the team/city/coach/system, and THRIVED.

I wanted Kyle to do the same thing. Reinvent himself in Denver, find somewhere he could focus on his strengths instead of his weaknesses for a change. I remembered the things he's done well over his career. For example, I was at Purdue's Bowl Game in Orlando after the 2003 season, where Orton dislocated his thumb. I remember how the crowd (including me) ROARED when he came back into the game, gritting it out and leading Purdue on a come-from-behind drive to force overtime.

He's not Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees. He's not flashy, particularly marketable, or inspiring to watch. But he's tough, and he can play. As someone who's spent my share of time expecting him to fail and clamoring for his backup, I've learned he's better than the alternative, in most cases. But we never see it, even if it's right in front of us. Why is that? What is it about Kyle Orton that makes our eyes dart around, looking for ANYWHERE ELSE TO GO?

How many of us have experienced something similar in our professional lives? Something about our workplace stunts our performance. We clash with a manager. We aren't in a system that knows how to use us properly. We don't have the opportunity to meet our full potential and we digress into apathy. The formula for success is the same in any walk of life - you prepare as much as you can, but you still have be the right person in the right place at the right time to reach EXCEPTIONAL.

Would Tom Brady be 'Tom Brady' if he'd been drafted in the 2nd round by the Oakland Raiders instead of in the 6th round by the Patriots? Would Peyton Manning be 'Peyton Manning' if he'd gone to San Diego instead of Ryan Leaf? We can speculate, but we'll never know for sure.

Your average quarterback has four (4) years, and Kyle's already nearly doubled that. He's not my 'THAT guy' anymore. For a few minutes it was Curtis Painter, but for now, the position is vacant.

All of that being said - I will be cheering HARD for Tim Tebow this weekend. If only Tim and Kyle could have somehow played together.