Replacing a hall of fame QB is never easy. The broncos thought they had their heir apparent to legend John Elway three times. All three proved to end in disaster and embarrassment. However, the broncos search may have finally ended this season with the most unlikely of candidates, Kyle Orton.
Orton did not arrive in Denver as a highly touted first round draft pick nor did he arrive as a prized free agent acquisition. Orton was merely filler in a much maligned off-season trade stemming from the surprising firing of long time head coach Mike Shanahan and the soap opera like events that followed. While nobody is wowed by Orton’s arm strength or elusive scrambling ability, he has proven to be a what-you-see-is what-you get QB with smart play and steady leadership.
To fully understand to the bronco’s long and sometimes desperate search for a new Duke of Denver one must go back to the ’99 season. In what was sort of a bombshell at the time, Shanahan named Brian Griese the starter over veteran Bubby Brister.
Shanahan drafted Griese in the third round of the ’98 draft. Griese served as the third-string QB behind Elway and Brister during the bronco’s championship season of ’98. Brister started 5 games for the injured Elway that year and went 5-0 behind an extremely talented team. All signs pointed to Brister taking over the helm as Elway’s successor. Shanahan decided to go with Griese feeling he would make safer decisions with the football as Brister had a long reputation as an erratic gunslinger.
The Broncos would finish ’99 with a 6-10 record and Griese battled injuries as well a losing Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe for the year early in the season. Griese would return as the starter in 2000 and have a pro-bowl season despite being injured late in the season and missing the wild-card playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens.
Griese seemed to be the QB of the future. Unfortunately for Griese, he could not repeat that success and finished with a combined 16-13 record as a starter in ‘01&’02 with no return to the playoffs. While no one doubted Griese’s heart, his sub-par arm strength, docile demeanor and knack for throwing untimely interceptions led to his teammates, and more importantly Shanahan, to lose faith in the 28 year-old signal caller.
Prior to the ’03 season the broncos released Griese and signed prized free agent Jake “the Snake” Plummer. Plummer had played six years with the perennial doormat Arizona Cardinals, leading them to one playoff berth amidst a slew of losing seasons. Many felt with the tutelage of Shanahan, Plummer had the tools to be very successful.
With the instruction of Shanahan, Plummer had his best season to date, finishing the season with a career high 91.2 rating, a 9-2 record as a starter and first playoff berth since 2000. The following season Plummer again would lead the broncos to the playoffs and even have one of the best seasons statistically in bronco’s history matching Elway’s record of 27 TD passes in a season and surpassing Elway’s passing yardage for a season record.
In ‘05, Plummer experienced his best season as a professional. Most notable was his streak of 229 passes without an interception, the longest such streak of his career. Plummer helped the Broncos compile a 13–3 record, making the Broncos the #2 team in the AFC, earning the Broncos a first-round bye. The Broncos’ first game was against the defending champion Patriots. Plummer’s performance helped the Broncos to become the first team to defeat the Patriots in the past 11 postseason games.
The following week the broncos played the Steelers in the AFC championship game. Broncos’ fans will forever remember this game as when the clock struck 12 for the bearded QB who donned the #16. Plummer committed 4 turnovers and looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a cement truck. It was evident to broncos’ fans, more importantly Shanahan, that Plummer would not be able to handle the pressure of a big game with the championship on the line. During the ’06 Draft the broncos traded up to select Jay Cutler with the 11th overall choice. It was obvious, Plummer especially, Shanahan was in love with the cannon armed Cutler.
11 games into the ’06 season Shanahan benched Plummer in favor of Cutler despite the 7-4 record at the time. Cutler, although putting up gaudy numbers, would fail the next two seasons to lead the broncos into the playoffs. After Shanahan was fired, Cutler disrespected bronco’s owner Pat Bowlen and was sent packing in a trade with the Chicago Bears. Enter Kyle Orton. After serving as the bears on again-off again starter for three years he arrived in Denver with absolutely no hoopla.
Orton quickly became acclimated with new head coach Josh McDaniels intricate offensive scheme and secured the starting job over journeyman Chris Simms. Orton has the broncos poised for a playoff spot (first since 2005) and has the whole broncos’ team playing like 53 unselfish, hardworking and overachieving men.
Of course only time will tell us If Kyle Orton will be the broncos QB for years to come and it goes without saying that Orton’s skill set will never make broncos fans forget about Elway but maybe the search for a cannon armed one man gang of a QB can finally be put to rest and we can settle for a hard working, overachieving and most importantly consistently good QB.