- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- You hear 4-0 and you brace for it, commentary from the same pockets of Kyle Orton supporters who emerged just enough over the past few years in Chicago to really get on your nerves.
"All he does is win," they'll say.
If they're not saying it yet in Denver, if they're not exactly swarming sporting goods stores for No. 8 jerseys after having recently purged themselves of No. 6, they may start soon. You suspect if the Bears were not 3-1, we would be hearing a little more chirping.
Much to everyone's surprise, the Broncos are 4-0 under Orton, the latest a 17-10 victory over Dallas that prompts praise for the best darned game manager in the NFL.
Seriously, good for Orton. No one will ever rave about his abilities even though yes, he does win much more than he loses (25-12 as an NFL starter, 17-2 at home). And it could not have been easy being jettisoned into a situation in which, despite their hostility toward their former quarterback Jay Cutler, Broncos fans were less than thrilled over the new guy with the weird beard.
You don't get thrilled over Orton. Rather you find yourself finding fewer and fewer reasons to dislike him with each passing win. And there may even be a point when Broncos fans suggest they are better off without Cutler.
But eventually, they'll sober up.
A good game manager does get away with certain things, particularly with a much-improved defense that has allowed 26 points in four games this season compared with last year's average of 28 points per game for 30th in the NFL.
Couple that with an offensive line doing a good job of protecting its quarterback, and Orton need only minimize mistakes. He's done that quite well, neither throwing an interception nor losing a single fumble this season. And knowing Orton's elusiveness, the Broncos' six sacks allowed is impressive.
But make no mistake, the Broncos would be a far better team with Cutler at quarterback, and the Bears a far inferior team were Orton still at the helm.
Against Dallas, the Broncos ran one play inside the Cowboys' 50-yard line -- after a Tony Romo turnover. Orton then threw his first of two touchdown passes when his throw went right through the hands of a defender and into those of Knowshon Moreno.
"Sometimes you get lucky," Orton said.
And sometimes, you get very lucky.
In the Broncos' miracle finish against Cincinnati, Orton emerged something of a hero. In truth, he underthrew his last two passes. The last, intended for Marshall, was tipped because it was underthrown and Brandon Stokley happened to be in the right spot at the right time.
With all due respect to the young and talented Johnny Knox, the rookie Bears receiver who came from Div. II Abilene Christian, he would never see the field if he were playing for the Broncos. And neither Knox nor the other Bears receivers would be having the kind of season they are enjoying with Cutler if the trade hadn't been made.
In the second half, against a solid Dallas pass rush, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels had Orton throw mostly to running backs and tight ends so he didn't have to spend much time in the pocket.
Even McDaniels has had a hard time mustering up very much enthusiasm for his quarterback. After the Broncos' victory over Oakland in which they again had trouble moving the ball downfield, McDaniels said, "Kyle certainly could have done better, but he played well. We're going to try hard to fix a few things that he didn't do well."
After the Dallas victory, McDaniels' praise of Orton was again underwhelming.
"I think any time you have a quarterback play -- I am not going to say error-free because he certainly was not error-free and hasn't been error-free in any game," McDaniels said, "[but] when he doesn't commit a big mistake and put the defense on a short field and give the other offense an opportunity to score points quickly ... Kyle has bought into that and understands his role and has done fairly well so far."
Last season, Cutler threw 18 interceptions and Orton 12. So far this season, Cutler has thrown five and his quarterback rating is 89.3 for 13th in the league, compared with Orton's seventh-best 97.7 rating.
If Orton were still with the Bears, they would not be 3-1. They would not be 2-2. With Cutler, the Broncos would be an early Super Bowl favorite.
Good for Orton that his new team is 4-0. He's a nice enough guy. Broncos fans might even be fooled into thinking they have a great team.
And they do.
Just not a great quarterback.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
2hEthan Sherwood Strauss