- Bill Williamson, ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson
Each AFC West team has a fascinating quarterback storyline unfolding as the 2009 season heads to the halfway point.
Half of the teams made major changes at the position. It seems another team could join the chorus.
With the help of Scout Inc’s Gary Horton and Matt Williamson, we're going to look at where each quarterback might be headed the rest of the season:
Orton Denver, Kyle Orton: Orton has been one of the stories of the NFL and a big reason why the AFC West quarterback club is so intriguing.
Not much was expected from Orton, who was a part of the Jay Cutler trade with Chicago. But Orton has been everything new Denver coach Josh McDaniels apparently didn’t think Cutler could be.
Orton has been a custom fit for McDaniels’ system. Together, the two have guided Denver’s offense. Orton has thrown just one interception and has been brilliant when it counts.
He’s not fancy, but he gets the job done and is getting better. Many people around the league believe that Orton will crash to earth, but Horton isn’t one of them.
“This is not a mirage,” Horton said. “Orton is for real and he will continue to play [well] for Denver.”
Horton thinks that the more McDaniels and Orton work together, the better the quarterback will become.
“Orton is a very cerebral guy, he reacts very well to good coaching,” Horton said. “McDaniels is a very good quarterback coach. He gives his quarterbacks detailed defensive philosophies. Orton really picks that up. That’s why he doesn’t make any mistakes. He knows what to expect. They really are perfect for each other.”
Cassel Kansas City, Matt Cassel: In his first season in Kansas City, Cassel has been far from a franchise player the Chiefs hope he will become. Cassel has the potential, but the former Patriot has been slow to get rolling.
Cassel doesn’t have nearly the supporting talent around him in Kansas City that he had last season with the Patriots. Williamson believes Cassel has a chance to improve for the 1-6 Chiefs, but he needs help.
“He’s really tough to judge,” Williamson said. “The guy only has 21 pro starts. … But I see him as a system guy, a solid, middle-of-the-road guy who will be serviceable. He’ll never be great, but you can win with him.”
But Williamson doesn’t see Cassel having much of a chance to turn around the Chiefs this season.
“That offense needs six or seven new starters,” Williamson said. “They have possibly the worst offensive line in the NFL, which in turn gives them no running game. It’s going to take a while in Kansas City. But that’s not Cassel’s fault. I’m not saying he’ll be a star, but the quarterback is not the problem in Kansas City.”
Russell Oakland, JaMarcus Russell: Russell is the one AFC West quarterback who is in danger of not being his team’s quarterback next season (Orton is a free agent, but look for Denver to try to sign to a long-term deal). Russell conceivably could lose his job in the next two months.
He was benched last week, and while Oakland coach Tom Cable insists he will remain the starter, Russell eventually could find himself in trouble if he continues to bumble.
Russell has shown no improvement all season and his work ethic has been questioned. This week, Cable was honest about Russell. The coach said Russell failed to make the right call on the first play of the game against the Jets and that he made the wrong reads on passes that became interceptions.
For the most part, Russell has failed to take responsibility. That’s what worries Horton about Russell’s future chances.
“I’m trying to find the silver lining there,” Horton said. “I keep trying to find reason why the Raiders shouldn’t pull the plug. But after watching him, there seems to be no choice but to pull the plug. … He is a guy who was a famous high school player and a star at LSU. This is the first time he really had to work, and, by all accounts, he doesn’t study, he’s late for meetings.
“I’m waiting for it to kick in with this guy, but I doubt it ever will.”
Rivers San Diego, Philip Rivers: While Orton has been the story of the division, Rivers continues to show he’s the best all-around player in the AFC West.
Rivers has been spectacular this season. He has all the intangibles and he makes few mistakes. He’s a steady hand and throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the NFL.
“I love him,” Williamson said. “He’s extremely quick in processing the play. He’s a tough guy who hangs in the pocket. He has great leadership. There’s probably only four or five guys in the league I’d take over him.”
Williamson believes the Chargers, overall, are a mess because of defensive line problems and issues in the running game. Still, he said if anyone can lead San Diego to its potential, it’s Rivers.
“He can carry that team on his back,” Williamson said. “If the Chargers make the playoffs, it will be because Rivers is so good.”
Getty Images Philip Rivers and Kyle Orton have gotten off to fantastic starts, but Matt Cassel (left) hasn't played like a franchise quarterback for Kansas City yet.