Commentary

Orton appears to have upper hand in Bears' QB race

With the Bears once again committed to winning with defense, look for Kyle Orton to ultimately emerge as the team's starting quarterback, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: July 24, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Kyle Orton & Rex GrossmanJerry Lai/US PRESSWIREFor the first time in his career, Kyle Orton, left, is being given a fair chance to beat out Rex Grossman.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Out of necessity, coach Lovie Smith has taken the Chicago Bears back in time.

The years were 2004 and 2005. The Bears were a young team, theoretically on the rise. Their core was a young defense, featuring Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and others.

"We were last in the division and we were all the afterthought," Smith said. "This camp is definitely like 2005, or you could go all the way back to 2004 going into 2005."

This time-machine treatment of a team that went to the Super Bowl in 2006 is telling. It tells me Kyle Orton has better than a coin-toss chance of winning the starting quarterback job. It tells me the 2007 Bears were unsuspecting victims of their success. It also tells me Smith is a pretty good coach who knows how to work a theme.

"You just felt it," Harris said of the innocence of 2004 and 2005. "I just knew how good we were back then. That was before the injuries. It was a different mind frame."

The mind-set was defense. In 2004 and 2005, the Bears had assembled the best young corps of defenders in the NFL. Adewale Ogunleye turned 27 before the 2004 season began, and he was that team's oldest defensive starter. After going from a 21st-ranked upstart in 2004 to the league's No. 2 defense in 2005, the Bears appeared to be embarking on a four- to five-year run of dominance.

"Back then, we were wondering and saying that we think we could do it even though we hadn't done it at the time," Smith said. "Now, this group has done it [gone to the Super Bowl]. They got almost to that goal. We know we can do it. We know we can do it with the philosophy of how we do things. The only difference now is the players know they can do it."

Still, it's hard to put the genie of youth and innocence back in the bottle and start anew. Over the past month, the organization refreshed the spirits of Harris and Urlacher with a couple of the best contracts at their positions. The defense that was once young and out to prove itself is rich and famous.

Which brings us back to that inevitable Chicago question about quarterback. Wednesday's opening practice didn't settle the nerves of Bears fans. In the morning, Rex Grossman won a coin toss to be the first-string quarterback. Orton handles the assignment Thursday, and the two will compete until a starter is named around the third preseason game.

Grossman opened with a long, well-thrown completion down the right sideline to Marty Booker -- back in Chicago after a four-year stay in Miami. Fans cheered but later had a few shudders watching Grossman throw a pick or misfire on a short pass in the flat.

The reason this is probably going to be Orton's job to lose is because he has less of a chance of losing games. Grossman can beat Orton in a throwing contest, but Orton simply makes fewer mistakes.

With Grossman injured, Orton, then a rookie, stepped up from his third-string status to help the 2005 Bears win 11 games and make the playoffs. His record as a starter was 11-4. The Bears won games with the defense making plays, Thomas Jones running the ball and Orton not screwing it up. Though he completed only 51.6 percent of his passes and had a horrible 59.7 quarterback rating, Orton didn't make mistakes at critical times.

"We talked about the way we won football games, and we won games with one of these two quarterbacks," Smith said. "Our core group is signed up and healthy. Tommie Harris is signed up for a long time. Brian [Urlacher] has his contract. Our two corners are signed. Mike Brown is healthy. People can forget us but, believe me, we will be back to playing our type of football."

In other words, like the Ravens at the start of the decade, the Bears plan to win despite the play of the quarterback. They plan to win with defense and special teams. In Orton's favor is his winning percentage. For the first time in a camp, he'll be given the chance to start. This is his fourth training camp. Until this summer, he's never had more than third-string snaps.

"This is the first time I've gone into a camp with a chance to be the opening-day starter," Orton said. "I've been stuck back with the threes in all of my offseasons. We'd have a 24-play period and I'd get four plays, if I was lucky."

Over his four years in the league, Orton has redone himself. His body is different. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner remembers that Orton came into the league as a big shotgun quarterback whose weight would top out in the 240s. Now, he's about 214. He's moving better. He has worked on his footwork and improved his accuracy.

Grossman is like Napoleon. He's shorter and mostly fearless on the field. The ball still explodes off his right hand, but, like Napoleon, he'll expose his troops to collateral damage by being too aggressive at the wrong time. Re-signed to a one-year contract almost by default because of a thin free-agent quarterback market, Grossman may be facing his Waterloo in camp this summer.

Sometimes acceptance is a big step forward for a franchise. The trip to the Super Bowl possibly had the Bears thinking what they aren't. Grossman's arm teased them into thinking they could win on offense. Smith is returning the Bears to a defense-minded team that will run the ball and hope not to screw it up with erratic quarterback play.

"What happened to the Bears in 2007?" Smith said. "Here's what happened to the Bears. We were injured last year. Maybe there was a Super Bowl hangover. Whatever the reason, we didn't play as well, but the core is still in place."

For the Bears to win, they have to get back to the mentality of the 2004 and 2005 teams. If not, they'll have a hard time reversing their fortunes, regardless of who starts at quarterback.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer