Bears putting their (strategic) faith in Orton

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The question didn't take too long to surface. After all, there had to be a reason why Kyle Orton was standing at the postgame interview podium Sunday after throwing for 334 yards in one game. Three hundred thirty-four yards. One game. Kyle Orton.

"You must like playing against Detroit, huh?"

Ah, there it is. This was Ford Field, and Orton's Chicago Bears had just stomped the Lions, 34-7. That explains it. Kyle Orton's career game had come against the NFC North's junior varsity team.

Statistically, it's true: In three career starts against the Lions, Orton has a 105.5 passer rating. Against the rest of the NFL, it's 60.7. Many middling quarterbacks share similar numbers.

It's convenient, but attributing Orton's success to his opponent's inferiority ignores the increasingly obvious trend in Chicago. Shedding his supposed role as a "game manager," Orton has moved to the center of the Bears' offense. The shift has coincided with the team's rise to the top of the NFC North and ranks as one of the more surprising turn of events in the division this season.

"Kyle is playing really well for us," coach Lovie Smith said. "And sometimes it happens like that, when you need to throw more than you run it."

In each of the past two weeks, Orton's arm has given the Bears an early lead -- by design. He threw three touchdowns in the first half of a 24-20 victory over Philadelphia, flawlessly executing a no-huddle offense to catch the Eagles' blitzing defense by surprise. And after feeling out the Lions on their first possession, the Bears called on Orton to throw on 31 of their next 54 plays en route to establishing a 31-0 lead.

"No question, when your quarterback is throwing well, you have a lot of confidence in him," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner told reporters postgame in the locker room. "And if the guy is making plays, it definitely opens things up. Right now, with the way he's playing, we'll call whatever we think we need to call."

Few expected such sentiment from the coordinator of an Orton-led offense, especially not when the Bears pitted him against Rex Grossman for the starting job during training camp. Orton's victory in that competition suggested they preferred the relative safety of Orton over Grossman's high-risk, high-reward approach. It emphasized the Bears would rely on a conservative formula to win games:

  • Defense

  • Special teams

  • Defense

  • Running game

  • Defense

  • A quarterback who doesn't screw up

In that order.

Chicago rode that formula to an opening-day victory at Indianapolis, where the Bears ran nearly twice as many times (39) as they passed (21) in a 29-13 victory. But after a pair of fourth-quarter collapses left them 1-2, the Bears noticeably changed gears and began relying more on Orton's arm.

Opponents had taken one look at the Bears' offensive personnel -- especially Orton and his group of no-name receivers -- and correctly assumed Chicago wanted to run as often as possible. But like most good coordinators, Turner is more proud of points than he is in proving the validity of a particular approach.

So as opponents lined up in expectation of seeing tailback Matt Forte crash the line of scrimmage, Turner proved more than willing to unleash Orton.


"We've got a lot of guys in the box on first down," Orton said. "We're not going to try to bang our heads against the wall with eight guys in the box. ... We've got a great running back and a good offensive line. So we'll obviously have some good looks to throw the ball."

Taking advantage of those looks still requires an inherent trust in the quarterback. And while it sounds simple, there are some NFL teams -- even within this Black and Blue division -- that prefer to run against an eight- and nine-man front rather than trust the quarterback. (Hint: That team's nickname rhymes with "Bikings," who started a quarterback whose name rhymes with "Backson" for two games even though t
hey had no faith in his ability to throw).

Orton's past work in the NFL hardly suggested he was ready for a pass-first game plan. And yes, it might be a little early to crown him a Pro Bowl candidate. Orton mitigated his early success against the Eagles by committing three turnovers in the third quarter, and he deserves at least a small asterisk Sunday after playing against the Lions' undermanned defense.

But there is no denying the Bears are increasingly comfortable reaching into the far regions of their playbook. On Sunday, Orton completed passes to seven different receivers and displayed competency on nearly every possible route. He drilled several slant passes to Devin Hester and Rashied Davis, showed nice touch on a drag route to tight end Greg Olsen and proved aggressive on a go pattern that receiver Marty Booker converted with a brilliant one-handed catch.

It will be interesting to watch the Bears' offensive direction as the weather changes. But if nothing else, Orton has shown enough that future opponents can't simply wait on what once seemed an inevitable sequence of plays: Run, run, run.

"I'm happy with how I'm progressing," Orton said. "It feels like I'm getting better every week, and it feels like the offense is getting better every week."