Kyle Orton is back as the Bears' starting quarterback after going nearly two years without taking a snap in a regular-season game.
After Rex Grossman suffered a fractured ankle in the preseason and spent most of the year recovering, Orton started 15 games as a rookie in 2005, going 10-5 for a playoff team. Grossman's current injury, a sprained left knee, is expected to keep him sidelined the remainder of the season, and it gives Orton a long-awaited opportunity to get back on the field.
"I think everybody knows that I've been frustrated and haven't liked my role," said Orton, who was informed of the promotion Monday morning. "But I tried to make the best of it, and now my job's just to focus on the future and try to play well and let everything work itself out."
Orton probably will start each of the final three games, although, for some reason, the Bears haven't ruled Grossman out beyond this week, and head coach Lovie Smith didn't make any guarantees.
"We have the Vikings up this week," Smith said, "and I really can't look any further than that."
Orton hopes his performance answers that question Monday night.
"I'm going to let my play speak for itself," he said. "I figure if I play well and win football games, it'll be my job."
The 6-4, 217-pound Orton was a fourth-round draft pick out of Purdue and was not expected to play at all as a rookie three years ago. But after Grossman was injured and Chad Hutchinson bombed as the replacement, the job fell into Orton's lap. He responded by throwing nine touchdown passes and 13 interceptions for a passer rating of 59.7. Despite the mediocre numbers, Orton performed adequately and managed games well enough for the Bears' strong running game and stout defense to carry the team to an 11-5 record and the playoffs.
Since then, Orton has sat patiently behind Grossman and veteran backup Brian Griese, but he said he's better now than he was then despite the inactivity.
"I think I've changed as a player and as a person," Orton said. "I've matured. I've been in the system now for three years. I feel very comfortable with it. Everybody around me has been in the system for three years and feels more comfortable with it. I think we're a better team now than we were when I was a rookie, and I think I'm a better player now than I was when I was a rookie."
Orton has arguably the strongest arm on the team and is closest to the prototypical size for an NFL quarterback. But he has spent the past two seasons directing the scout team, imitating the opponent's offense against the Bears' No. 1 defense.
QB Kyle Orton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"He's been the opposing quarterback just about every week," Smith said. "He's a smart football player. He has a strong arm. Our guys have played with him, so they know what type of player he is, too."
Bernard Berrian, the Bears' leading receiver, said Orton's role has been a difficult one the past two years but not a waste of time.
"If you sat back and didn't do anything about it, then it's probably hard to sit out," Berrian said. "But [not] if you learn, which I know he did just seeing what he does out at practice. I know he's gotten a lot better this year."
Orton credited Griese with helping him become a better player during his absence from the playing field.
"Brian Griese's helped me out a bunch, and he continues to help me," Orton said. "He's become a mentor. He's a friend. He's a true pro, somebody who prepares. If you can take anything from it, just take away his preparation. He's always mentally ready for the game. I'm going to try to take that aspect into my performance. He was in there watching film with me [Monday] morning. He's been integral, and I just hope to build off of everything that he's taught me, and then [quarterbacks coach] Pep [Hamilton] and everybody along the way and show them what I can do."
Griese started six games earlier this season after Grossman was benched following disappointing performances in the first three games. But Griese lost the job after suffering a left shoulder injury against the Raiders, and Grossman rallied the Bears to a 17-6 victory, reclaiming the job.
The Bears could have gone back to Griese again, but they would like to see if Orton has a future with the team before he becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season.
"Most of the guys on our team have had an opportunity to prove what they could do, except for Kyle," Smith said. "So I'm excited about what he could possibly do for us this coming week."
If Orton is a bit rusty in the starting role, he at least is familiar with the surroundings, having taken his last regular-season snap at the Vikings' Metrodome on New Year's Day 2006.
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