Kyle Orton wants to retire. Your average NFL fan on the street probably shrugs at this news and says, “so what?” or “who?” or “him?” (that last one said in the appropriate “Arrested Development” voice). When last we saw him, he was starting for the Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles, trying to drag them to the playoffs after Tony Romo‘s season-ending back surgery. He played well (358 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions that, as I recall, weren’t entirely his fault). Still, as always, he ended up a punchline.
Orton has had a strange and punchline-filled career that I’m still struggling to understand, and I (like the Cowboys) am not ready for him to leave (though their reasons are more financial in nature than mine; they seem like they’d appreciate it if he fulfilled more of his five-year contract or at least paid back part of his signing bonus). It’s ironic, now that he’s decided to step away, that this could be the first time anyone has expressed a want for him to stay.
Back in his college days at Purdue, he was “almost” a Heisman Trophy candidate (at least, that’s what they told us students). He came within a lost fumble at home against Wisconsin of taking Purdue to the No. 1 spot in the polls. Despite his almosts, his habit of wobbling on the knife’s edge of brilliance and forehead-slapping disappointment, his only real crime was being “the guy who followed Drew Brees.” Fans didn’t connect with Orton the same way. Though they were in the midst of a special football era, they didn’t realize it. Everyone kept wondering who Orton’s backup was; weren’t they getting someone to replace him? I’m still not sure why everyone felt that way, but it’s been the pattern of his entire career.
Orton went to the Chicago Bears his rookie year and played fifteen games because Rex Grossman is made of paper mache. Orton did well enough to get the Bears to the playoffs (albeit in a beige way). He was rewarded with being benched for Grossman and then being tossed out west in a semi-insulting trade for Jay Cutler (and please know that I live in Chicago; no one enjoys Cutler more than I do, but that trade was pretty crummy).
Orton was a Bear for four years, including the year they lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl; he came that close to getting a ring. He was a Denver Bronco for two and a half seasons before he was supplanted. Remember that wack-a-doodle Tim Tebow season? Guess whose job Tebow took (again, no one enjoyed that spectacle more than me, but it just figures)? It’s always been the story of Orton’s life; wherever he’s been, whatever he’s been doing, the question has always been “Don’t we have anyone else?”
Your average NFL player has a career of about four years. It takes something special to stay in the league for a decade, whether a guy’s a starter or a backup. Orton always had something special; we were just never quite sure what it was. He’s been with the Cowboys two seasons now, played in four games, and last season (as a 30-year-old) he put up a QB rating of 85.3. I laughed this offseason when the Cowboys picked up Cleveland Browns castoff Brandon Weeden, because all I could think was, “Good grief, it’s going to happen again! First Grossman, then Cutler, then Tebow and now Weeden is going to somehow take his backup job!”
Orton is 31 years old. He is what he’s always been, but he’s never been as bad as everyone thought he was. He’s cursed with some optical illusion that makes him underrated — criminally so. Everyone wondered if the Cowboys were going to draft Johnny Manziel. There’s the perpetual roar around Tony Romo and whether he is who we thought he was. The Cowboys’ quarterback situation is rocky at best, and Orton seems to be saying, “Thanks but no thanks.” And for the first time in his career, for whatever their reasons, someone is aggressively asking him to stay.
The more I think about it (and as much as I’ll miss him, for nostalgic and comedic reasons), now seems like the perfect time to step away, and I hope he gets what he wants. Congratulations on a secretly fantastic career, Kyle Orton. Whenever your retirement comes, you will be missed.