There are a few names among the Dallas Cowboys free agent signings that prompted a lot of remarks along the lines of "Who?" Lawrence Vickers and Mackenzy Bernadeau were not names that all of us were very familiar with. Even Brandon Carr was known to most of us only because we had been reading about him as a possible target for the Cowboys ever since the regular season ended.
But new backup quarterback Kyle Orton is a name known by almost everyone. He has been in the league for seven years, and he started as a rookie with the Chicago Bears. Since he was not only a long time starter, but one that the Cowboys have faced, people think they have a pretty good read on him. The general consensus, not just here, is that he is a starting caliber player. As Jeff Sullivan at the mothership put it:
(Kyle Orton) is without question one of the top-25 quarterbacks in football, and will likely be the top-rated backup when the season kicks off. Seasons often fall apart when franchise quarterbacks are injured. Not this time around. Orton can step in and win football games, short or long term.
That's the impression a lot of us have. But just to make sure, let's look at some data.
Numbers and such after the jump
Kyle comes in to replace Jon Kitna. During three years with the Cowboys, Jon played in 13 games and started nine during the 2010 season after Tony Romo was injured. This is the role Kyle has signed up for, and given recent history there is, unfortunately, a pretty good chance he will be asked to step in for Tony at some point during his contract. Like Orton, Kitna was an experienced NFL starter before becoming Romo's backup. I thought it would be informative to compare the two, so I pulled some career stats for them from NFL.com.
One of the things that jumps out is how similar some of these numbers are when you adjust for the longevity involved. Kitna's career was exactly twice as long as Orton's to date, and that 2:1 ratio shows up over and over. Orton had almost exactly half the attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns Kitna had, which would indicate that the two are very similar in some ways, and the completion percentage and quarterback rating bear that out, being very close, with Kitna having a slight edge in the first number and Orton taking the rating, with the difference coincidentally enough being exactly 2.0 in each case.
So did the Cowboys just wind up standing pat with Orton? Admittedly, that would not be a bad thing, since Kitna was considered one of the better backups in the league. But some of the other numbers above signal some pretty important advantages Kyle brings to the table.
First, Kyle has a better touchdown to interception ratio. Jon pretty much threw an interception for every touchdown over the length of his career with 169:165, but Kyle's 80:57 is much better looking. Maybe not outstanding, but certainly an upgrade.
Kyle also took fewer sacks. If you divide Kitna's number in half, it works out to 161.5 sacks per seven years, compared to the 132 Orton had. That's about five fewer per season. Again, not earth-shattering, but still a clear advantage to the younger Orton.
It seems that getting Orton in free agency was a very good pickup. He is likely to be a better option than the man he succeeds, and Jon Kitna certainly acquitted himself well in 2010. Given the need for good or just competent quarterbacks in the NFL (David Garrard just signed with the Miami Dolphins and Alex Smith is suddenly a hot, or at least semi-hot commodity), the speed with which Jerry and Stephen Jones locked him up is pretty impressive.
The numbers make this look like a good deal. The intangibles are a bit harder to interpret, but certainly interesting. Kyle fell victim to Tebowmania in Denver, and has to be getting a bit of wry amusement from the $96 million red carpet welcome the Broncos are giving to Peyton Manning. I would expect that he is ready for a chance to prove himself, if it should come along.
The one thing that is very hard to project is the kind of influence Kyle will have in the locker room. All the reports on Jon Kitna were that he was a leader and a good influence, without undermining Tony Romo. This may be the biggest test for Kyle. With his recent history, it would not be surprising to see a bit of cynicism. Balancing that may be the fact that the Cowboys went after him hard and made it clear that he was the man they wanted.
It is funny how the way I look at a player in the NFL can change when they put on that Star. I always felt that Orton was a middle of the road quarterback who generally did not have very good teams around him. I hope he turns out to be a little better than I thought - and that the team is much better than it has been. It looks like it could be a win-win.
In any case, it is a comforting thought to know that the Cowboys' backup quarterback could probably win a starting job, or certainly compete for one, on a handful of other teams.