Bears fans well remember that 2005 Orton, a rookie whose mandate was simple: Just don't screw up so much to make this team with a great defense lose. That worked well enough, and the Bears got off to a 9-4 start, but eventually Orton couldn't even manage that simple task, and was benched. Now Orton is back as the Bears' starter, but he showed Sunday that he's in no way the same player.
The most important difference between the Orton of today and the Orton of three years ago is his accuracy. Orton is completing 62.2% of his passes this season, a completion percentage more than 10 points better than his 2005 rate. This newfound accuracy was beautifully on display on Orton's first touchdown pass, when he stood at the 25-yard line and drilled a throw to tight end Greg Olsen at the goal line. Three Vikings surrounded Olsen, but Orton threw the pass right through them and into Olsen's hands.
In 2005, Orton's pass would have been six inches or so off in either direction, and that slight difference would have allowed one of those Vikings to knock it away or intercept it, and all of the fans and TV announcers would blame him for "throwing into triple coverage." But the truth is, great quarterbacks throw into coverage all the time -- it's just that they're accurate enough to complete the pass anyway. Orton wasn't in 2005.
Orton has also improved significantly in his ability to avoid the pass rush. Even after Vikings defensive end Jared Allen sacked him twice on Sunday, Orton is still getting sacked on just 8.9% of his drop backs, compared to 13.6% of his drop backs in 2005. The way Orton has matured in his pocket presence was on display when the Bears had third-and-goal from the 17-yard line in the second quarter. As Orton dropped back to pass and scanned the field, the Vikings dropped eight men into coverage and only had three rushing. That should have given Orton plenty of time to pass, but Vikings defensive tackle 93 pushed Bears guard 61 back into him, collapsing the pocket.
The Orton of 2005 would have taken a sack. But the Orton of 2008 broke free of the pocket, continued looking downfield as he ran, and finally found Matt Forte open. The play wasn't successful because Forte couldn't get into the end zone, but it was a gain of nine yards. In 2005, Orton would have been sacked for a loss of nine yards.
The final way Orton has shown significant improvement since 2005 is on his deep balls. Late in the second quarter Sunday, the Bears faced third-and-8 from the Minnesota 24-yard line, and Orton sent a pass floating from the 31-yard line in the middle of the field directly to Marty Booker, who got both hands on it but dropped it at the goal line. As a rookie, when Orton threw passes that traveled 35 or 40 yards in the air, he looked like he was heaving them with everything he had. Now he can put touch on his downfield passes. That's why he's averaging 11.7 yards a completion, or two yards a completion better than he did in 2005.
A lot of players who became starters as rookies only to be sent to the bench for the next two years would get discouraged, and maybe even start tuning their coaches out. It's clear from watching Orton that he spent his time as a backup working hard at learning the nuances of quarterback play. Now that work is paying off.