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Cowboys Offseason Headscratcher: Has Kyle Orton Become Brad Johnson?

With Tony Romo missing time after offseason back surgery, Kyle Orton took every snap in OTAs and minicamps and, by all reports, struggled with his accuracy and zip. Are the Cowboys in dire need of a new backup quarterback?

Has Kyle Orton lost his fastball?
Has Kyle Orton lost his fastball?
Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

As O.C.C.'s morning wrap-up post made abundantly clear, the Cowboys are one of the handful of NFL teams that can rest easy knowing they have a very good, if not great, player at not only the game's most important position, but the most difficult position in all of sports. As the brightest of luminaries, Roger Staubach says, "I think Tony is the right quarterback, and we’re lucky to have Tony Romo." The Dodger will get no argument from me.

I'd like to remind you, dear reader, of two of Romo's most impressive qualities. First, his ability to avoid the rush; in recent years, as the Cowboys offensive line play has deteriorated steadily, he has continued to make plays, avoiding oncoming behemoths with startling agility and a weird prescience. Second, he has demonstrated tremendous grit and toughness; while it's popular to say that he's soft, anybody who witnessed his performance early in the 2011 season, playing with a broken rib, knows better.

Which brings me to today's topic. Despite his Jedi maneuvering, our starting quarterback takes a beating. On two occasions, Romo has missed games due to injury: in 2008, when a broken pinkie sidelined him for three games, and in 2010, when his season was cut short after six contests after his collarbone was broken. In addition, a nasty swollen hand prevented him from finishing a week 16 contest against the Eagles in 2011. Although he played every snap in 2009, the prevailing narrative is that he's going to get dinged and miss some time.

Knowing this, the Cowboys had opted in recent years to a very specific backup signal caller: a veteran who has started (and won) but isn't gung ho about competing for a starting position. Such a guy, the thinking goes, can come into a game and run the offense after taking limited practice snaps. While this is a sound idea, there is a flaw: aged quarterbacks lose their fastballs and, to make it worse, there's no telling when it will happen.

Indeed, this was the horrific discovery the team made in 2008, when Brad Johnson had to sub in for Romo for three key midseason games. It was immediately apparent that he no longer had any bullets in his gun; he couldn't make any of the "NFL throws": posts, deep outs to the far sideline, etc. With him in the lineup, the offense, so electric the previous year, stalled, and the team fell into a hole from which they could not extricate themselves.

With that nightmare still in mind, the Cowboys have since tried to get the younger, suppler members of the veteran QB club to back up Romo. In 2010, Kitna proved he still has some pop in his aged noodle; when he retired after the 2011 season, they turned to Kyle Orton, a guy whose arm has never been mistaken for Terry Bradshaw's or Jeff George's. Still, in training camp and preseason last year, he appeared to still have the ineffable "it" that allowed him to make NFL throws.

This offseason, however, the narrative is different. Because of Romo's back injury, Orton took every first-team snap in OTAs and minicamps, and never seemed to get the rust out. Early in OTAs, numerous pundits offered reports like this one from the ever-observant Todd Archer:

At the conclusion of the offseason, Calvin Watkins had this to say:

The Cowboys are expected to go with just two quarterbacks in the regular season, but if something happens to Romo, you should worry about Orton. Maybe a lack of snaps, or the heat, got to him, but his timing was off. The last time he got extensive snaps was in the loss to Chicago last season in which he completed nine of 10 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. After watching this offseason display, the Cowboys need to make drafting a quarterback a priority in 2014.

Throughout, Orton was wild and seemed to have diminished zip on his throws. Reading these reports, I have to wonder: has Orton lost his fastball? Even worse: has he become Brad Johnson, circa 2008?

Johnson, you may remember (if you haven't blocked it out permanently) was backed up by Brooks Bollinger, a 29 year old developmental type (he starter nine games for the Jets in 2005). When Johnson was putrid in a terrible loss to the Giants in New York, Bollinger was inserted...and was even worse. His sixteen pass attempts that day were the worst of his career. If Orton indeed proves to be another Johnson, who might play the Bollinger role?

Nick Stephens, perhaps? The Cowboys were interested in the Tarleton State product before the 2011 draft; he numbered among their "Dallas Day" visitors. Stephens began his college career at Tennessee, where he backed up Eric Ainge as a redshirt freshman, and then started six games in 2008, splitting time with Jonathan Compton. Stephens eventually transferred to Tarleton State when Vols head coach Lane Kiffin suddenly up and left to go to USC. Little of this upheaval had to do with Stephens, who started his Tennessee career by throwing 106 consecutive passes without an interception, the best mark in the University's history. Stephens has NFL size and a legit NFL arm, although he struggles with footwork and accuracy. When he executes his drops cleanly and gets his feet underneath him, scouts say, he can make accurate throws, with zip.

Dalton Williams? Like Stephens, he's a local kid (from Coppell) who finished his collegiate career at a different place than he started. Williams played his final season at Akron after serving as the backup quarterback at Stephen A. Austin from 2008-11. Apparently, he had already finished his degree but had a final, fifth year of eligibility remaining, so he moved on. Williams has good size (6'4", 221 pounds) but his history (the dude could not win the starting role at little SFA, for goodness' sake) suggests he's little more than a camp arm.

So what's to be done? Even with Orton at the top of his game, if Romo were to go down for an extended period of time (knock on wood), the Cowboys;' season would be in jeopardy. Orton was brought in as insurance against a shorter-term injury, the kind Romo suffered in 2008. If Orton is unable to throw with neither accuracy nor zip, how do you like the team's chances of escaping that three-day stretch 2-1 or better?

Perhaps with this in mind, there has been a bit of scrabbling amongst the local Dallas media for the team to take a look at Vince Young. I think this is poor execution of a good idea. Young was wretched as the Eagles backup in 2011 (locals seem hold onto how spectacular he was in his final collegiate season more than how mediocre - and immature - he was in the NFL), but it might behoove the team to take a look at a player like him, even if it means dipping into a verrrry shallow pool. Here are the available candidates:

Player FA Status Previous Team Career COMP %
Trent Edwards UFA (Cut) Philadelphia Eagles 60.6%
Vince Young UFA Buffalo Bills 57.9%
Byron Leftwich UFA Pittsburgh Steelers 57.9%
Matt Leinart UFA Oakland Raiders 57.1%
Charlie Batch UFA Pittsburgh Steelers 56.6%
Tyler Thigpen UFA Buffalo Bills 54.0%
John Skelton UFA (Cut) Arizona Cardinals 53.2%
JaMarcus Russell UFA Oakland Raiders 52.1%
Jordan Palmer UFA Jacksonville Jaguars - -
Dayne Crist UFA (Cut) Baltimore Ravens - -
Nathan Stanley UFA (Cut) Baltimore Ravens - -
Alex Carder UFA (Cut) Detroit Lions - -
Alex Tanney UFA (Cut) Kansas City Chiefs - -
Jerrod Johnson UFA (Cut) Seattle Seahawks - -

*Shudder. On second thought, maybe I'd rather entrust Nick Stephens with a mid-November divisional game...


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