- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cutler and Philip Rivers engaged in a deliciously icy relationship complete with on-field antagonism and off-field name-calling. It had potential to be a decade-long dispute. It was a letdown when Cutler was drop-kicked to Chicago by Josh McDaniels in 2009. With the feud foiled, it appeared all the intrigue of AFC West quarterback play had disappeared. What could replace the Cutler-Rivers loathe fest?
How about unprecedented quarterback play? Will that do?
Kyle Orton, the player who came to Denver from Chicago as part of the Cutler trade, may not have the feisty demeanor, but he has the ability to keep up with Rivers. In one of the more astounding storylines of the 2010 NFL season, the two AFC West quarterbacks are reaching uncharted quarterbacking territory.
Through nine games, Rivers is leading the NFL with 2,944 passing yards. Orton is second with 2,806 yards. Rivers is on pace to set the NFL single-season passing record with 5,233 yards. Orton is on pace to throw for 4,988 yards.
Only two times in league history have quarterbacks thrown for more than 5,000 yards. Dan Marino threw for a record 5,084 yards in 1984 and Drew Brees (whom Rivers replaced in San Diego in 2006) threw for 5,069 yards in 2008. There is a legitimate chance the AFC West may match history this season. We will get to see Rivers' and Orton’s march for 5,000 yards Monday night when Denver visits San Diego on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
“These are two very strong players,” former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said. "They are two very different players, but you can’t deny the season or talent either player has.”
Rivers, who’ll turn 29 next month, and Orton, who turned 28 last Sunday, have taken separate paths. Rivers has long been designated a top quarterback. The No. 4 pick of the 2004 draft, Rivers has been on the fast track since taking over the Chargers’ offense in 2006. He has the best career passer rating in NFL history at 96.9.
Orton has taken a less certain NFL road. Orton was a starter in Chicago in his rookie season in 2005 and in his fourth season in 2008 before being a throw-in on the Cutler trade. Orton made immediate progress last season under McDaniels. Orton threw for 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2009. It was a nice start in a new system. This year, Orton looks like he’s been playing in McDaniels’ system for 10 years. In addition to his load of yards, Orton is very efficient. He has 16 touchdown passes and has thrown just five interceptions.
Former Chicago teammate and current Denver radio color man Brian Griese said Orton’s arrival as a solid NFL player was a matter of leaving Chicago. Griese didn’t think former Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner (the brother of Rivers’ head coach, Norv Turner) helped Orton’s career as much as McDaniels has. Griese said he and Orton were in an "archaic" system in Chicago.
“For Kyle, it was a matter of him getting his health, being in a good system and getting good coaching,” Griese said. “I knew once he got out of that bad situation, he’d flourish. ... Anyone who flips on the film knows Kyle Orton is a good quarterback. He has a great combination of accuracy, arm strength and knowledge of the game.”
Unlike Rivers, Orton is not known for having a big arm, but both Griese and Dilfer insist Orton has an underrated arm to go with his accuracy and strong grasp of the game. There’s statistical backing for that view. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Orton and Rivers are among the NFL’s best on passes of 21 yards or longer. Rivers has completed 50 percent of those passes for 650 yards and eight touchdowns. His passer rating on those passes is 110.9. Orton has completed 46.3 percent of passes 21 yards or longer for 653 yards and five touchdowns. His passer rating in the situation is 122.2.
Dilfer laughs that Orton has not been able to shake the “game manager” label he picked up in Chicago. The Broncos have the No. 32-ranked run offense in the NFL, and the Broncos’ offensive line struggled the first half of the season.
“Everyone looks at Kyle as a low upside guy with no measurables and who at best can manage a game,” Dilfer said. “The truth is, there is no bigger quarterback-driven offense in the NFL than Denver. The burden is on him every play and he handles it flawlessly, and I don’t say that lightly.”
While Orton has been dealing with the disadvantage of having a poor running game, Rivers has had his own challenges. He has been playing without Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson all season. Jackson, who ended his holdout last month, is set to return in Week 12. Other receivers have been hurt. In Week 9, Rivers was playing without his top four receivers and without star tight end Antonio Gates. Still, Rivers threw for 295 yards and four touchdown passes in a comeback win that kept San Diego’s AFC West hopes alive. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers is second in the NFL in pocket passing with 16 touchdowns and a passer rating of 105.8.
Rivers’ success in distress doesn’t surprise Dilfer.
“Philip Rivers is one of the very elite players in the NFL,” Dilfer said. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at playing in chaos. He doesn’t need a clean pocket. It doesn’t matter if all hell breaks loose, he makes plays. In situations where most guys crumble, Rivers will throw an 18-yard strike and it makes you say, ‘How did he do that?’"
If San Diego, which has been strapped by bad special-teams play, had a record better than 4-5, Rivers would probably be the runaway MVP candidate. He is currently No. 2 on ESPN’s MVP Watch. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. believes Rivers is the top candidate for NFL MVP.
“No one is playing better than he is this season,” Williamson said. “He’s an elite guy.”
Concluded Dilfer: “These are two great players. Everyone knows Rivers is good, but forget the label on Orton; the guy is good, too. These two are going to be around a long while in that division.”