Back when the Vikings and Bears were making their post-draft preparations for the 2008 season, neither Gus Frerotte nor Kyle Orton was looked upon as his team's starting quarterback. But, as Minnesota and Chicago square off Sunday for the lead in the NFC North, Frerotte and Orton are the unexpected matchup to watch.
The Bears have spent the last several years trying to decide once and for all if Rex Grossman would be their long-term solution at quarterback. A former first-round pick, perhaps no quarterback in recent memory has been booed more by the home fans than Grossman. He seemed to silence his critics in September 2006 when he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month. But his play declined steadily from there and, in his first three starts last year, he threw one touchdown and six interceptions and was benched in favor of Brian Griese. With Griese no longer with the Bears, it once again looked like it was Grossman's job to win in the preseason. He didn't, and Orton took over.
In six games as a starter this year, the Bears are 3-3 and Orton has been a solid leader. He is averaging 219 yards a game passing and has a 2-to-1 touchdowns-to-interception ratio, tossing eight touchdowns and just four picks. He has a passer rating of 87.6 and has done what Grossman couldn't do – hold on to the ball and not make stupid mistakes or take unnecessary chances. Last year, Bears quarterbacks threw 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, which could explain their drop from Super Bowl team to tied with Detroit for last place in the division in the span of just one year. Orton has changed that and the Bears are very much in contention for the postseason once again.
The same is true with Frerotte. Heading into the preseason, it was clear that, for better or worse, Tarvaris Jackson was the Vikings' starting quarterback. Brad Childress had staked his reputation on seeing what so few others could – the potential in Jackson growing into a top-flight NFL QB. After a 0-2 start and the 2008 season unraveling before his eyes, Childress did an abrupt about-face – benching T-Jack and naming Frerotte the starter for the rest of the season.
In his four starts, Frerotte has led the Vikings to a 3-1 record, has thrown for 988 yards (almost 250 yards a game) and has a passer rating of 76.1 – not great, but significantly better than Jackson's 65.7 rating. Perhaps more importantly, he has incorporated the Vikings' wide receivers into the game plan. Bobby Wade set a personal high in receptions in Week 4 at Tennessee with seven. He broke that mark a week later with eight. Over the last two weeks, Bernard Berrian has topped 100 yards twice and is averaging almost 20 yards per reception. Frerotte has brought the big play the Vikings offense that has been missing since the Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper days.
In a game where the national media will focus on running backs Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte, as well as the defenses lining up to stop them, the battle that will likely determine who wins the game will be waged by the quarterbacks – two guys that were expected to do little more than wear a baseball cap on the sideline and chart plays. Whichever one of them can create more big plays to get their respective team in scoring position will be the one that likely wins the game – making this improbable pairing this week's matchup to watch.
Matchup to watch: Frerotte vs. Orton
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