Chicago Rookie Receives a Passing Grade

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

For any other team, it would have been a disappointing debut. In his first NFL start yesterday, Chicago Bears quarterback Kyle Orton threw for less than 150 yards, tossed a game-changing interception and led an offense that struggled to communicate.

And afterward, teammates heralded Orton's performance as the highlight of their season-opening, 9-7 loss to the Redskins at FedEx Field.

It was a reaction that said less about Orton than it did about the minimal expectations of him. The Bears, having started seven different quarterbacks in their last seven season openers, want nothing more than an adequate quarterback who can keep them in games, and Orton did that Sunday. The rookie from Purdue limited his mistakes, made solid reads and managed to occasionally move the Chicago offense. For that, he walked into a postgame locker room filled with backslappers and handshakers eager to praise the quarterback on a job well done.

"Kyle Orton did some good football things, a very good job for the first time out," Bears Coach Lovie Smith said. "For a rookie starting his first game in a hostile environment, he gave us a chance to pull it out. We'll take that, he'll get better the next time out and we'll go from there."

On Sunday, Orton's biggest success was avoiding failure. His debut was set up to be a disaster, teammates said. A fourth-round pick, Orton became a starter because of an injury to Rex Grossman. For that, Orton got to open his career in the NFL's biggest stadium against a veteran defense with complicated blitz packages. "There was a lot of stuff that I had to think about," Orton said.

He had more adversity heaped on his shoulders when yesterday's game started. The Bears failed to establish any running threat, gaining a total of 41 yards on the ground. Worse yet, the helmet in Orton's headset went down during the second quarter, and he had to manage his way through at least one possession without coordination from the sideline.

In spite of all that, Orton performed serviceably. He completed 15 of 28 passes, throwing nine times for first downs. He settled into a rhythm midway through the second half, completing four consecutive passes in the third quarter.

"We moved the ball pretty well," Orton said. "I saw a lot of pressure. People didn't really blitz a whole lot in the preseason, and [the Redskins] blitzed quite a bit. We still had chances to put points on the board."

Even when the Bears offense blew those chances, Orton's teammates absolved their quarterback of any wrongdoing.

The handful of nervous-looking passes Orton threw errantly in the first half? "All of us receivers should have made some more spectacular catches to help him out," Muhsin Muhammad said. "You can't expect a quarterback to be perfect."

That third-quarter pass intended for Muhammad in the end zone that instead became a Lemar Marshall interception? "It took guts for Kyle to even try to throw that," Muhammad said. "I probably could have gotten him a little more separation to make the throw."

Those three consecutive false starts in the fourth quarter that stalled Chicago just before it reached field goal range? "That was everybody's fault, not just Kyle's," tackle John Tait said. "We were all confused. You can't put that on the quarterback."

So it was that Orton sat near his locker after the game, relaxing with a large chew of smokeless tobacco in his mouth, and accepting congratulatory handshakes from his teammates. The Bears had a long season ahead, he said, but the offense would get even better.

These were expectations that he could live up to.

"It's going to be pretty simple for Kyle," Bears running back Thomas Jones said. "We don't want him to lose us the game. If he does that, he's doing a good job."


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