Overshadowed Orton looking sharp in preseason

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Every day, Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) hums passes across the team's practice fields with a precision he's never quite had before. His receivers marvel that he is so accurate they don't have to break stride or reach to catch the ball. They say he is as good as they have seen him. One, Brandon Lloyd(notes), says the ball "just sticks in your hands."

If the Broncos can escape mediocrity this season, Orton will probably be a major reason why.

And yet the better he looks, the more the fans who visit training camp refuse to care. They don't shout his name. They don't wear his jersey. And when practice ends nobody screams or begs for him, or even shows him a whit of loyalty.

Such is life in the summer of Tim Tebow(notes), where the third-string quarterback is the most popular man on the field.

"It's been an interesting summer," Orton says with a small laugh.

He then waves his hand dismissively.

"I don't care about the glare at all," Orton elaborates. "Listen, I live to play football. I don't want to be anything other than a football player in regards to all the fanfare. I just want to play football."

It is not an indictment of Tebow that the team's first-round draft pick is not ready yet for the NFL. He was always going to be a project that would take two or three years before he develops into a starter. But maybe no one understood just how good Orton was about to become. And while it is still only August and none of the games count for anything yet, there is something different about Orton.

"His maturation process has been really cool to see," says Lloyd, who played with Orton on the '08 Bears, then signed with the Broncos last offseason.

To many, the thought of Orton being "the answer at QB" must seem like a joke. In his five-year career he has hardly inspired. In Chicago he couldn't beat Rex Grossman(notes) to be the Bears starting quarterback. When the Broncos were trying to trade disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) and picked Orton over then Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell(notes), many in the Redskins organization soured even more on Campbell. If Denver wanted Orton over Campbell, then how bad must Campbell be?

In 33 career starts – including 15 each for the '08 Bears and '09 Broncos – he has a 19-14 record. He does not have a strong arm. He's not elusive. He doesn't seem to do anything special. But handed Tom Brady's(notes) offense last year by former New England Patriots offensive coordinator and current Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, and an ailing Orton began to thrive. He threw for 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns. Yet because he was Kyle Orton, 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns didn't mean much of anything.

If this summer is any indication, observers may start taking more notice.

As Orton reflects on camp, he smiles. He looks down at his feet. His ankles, he says, feel good again. It's been a few years since he was completely healthy. He arrived in Denver with a bad left ankle and the injury only got worse during last season. He couldn't move. He couldn't plant his feet. Nothing felt right.

Now that the ankles have healed, it's so easy to throw.

"My velocity is better, my accuracy is better," he says. "That comes from finally being healthy."

Orton get some pressure from the Lions in Saturday's preseason game.
(Jack Dempsey/AP Photo)

He also admits that while the drafting of Tebow did not openly bother him, the fact the team used a first-round pick on a quarterback did provide a measure of motivation. But not as much as finding out he would not be an unrestricted free agent as he once expected – a quirk of the uncapped year. This meant he would not get the multi-million dollar deal he had been anticipating. He spent the winter more motivated than ever before. His patience and approach were partially rewarded as the Broncos last week signed him to a one-year extension through 2011 for as much as $9 million.

Still, not to be overshadowed is the fact that he might finally have matured as a quarterback. He has had a chance to start for two years now. And being in the second year of McDaniels' offense has made him more comfortable. Even McDaniels admits players need a full year to grasp its nuances.

With a greater comfort and understanding of the system comes freedom. While Orton seems to crave predictability, he also likes to scan the field for possibilities, Lloyd explains.

"In Chicago he was always in a box," Lloyd said.

In Denver there is no box.

The other day, McDaniels said Orton "can go higher," as a quarterback.

"He's playing very smart right now, he's very accurate. There's really nothing that we're not doing offensively that I've ever done in the past that he's incapable of doing and running at a high level. But there is still more to do. I know he thinks that."

His team seems to believe.

If only the fans could too.