Orton brings peace of mind to Cowboys

March 14, 2012

The Dallas Cowboys made a splash at the backup quarterback spot on the second day of free agency -- if such a thing is possible. Tony Romo finally has a credible backup who could actually hold the fort if he's injured again.

Former Bear, Bronco and Chief quarterback Kyle Orton signed a three-year contract with the Cowboys on Tuesday.

The Cowboys have wandered in the backup quarterback wilderness ever since Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe six games into the 2006 season. Brad Johnson hung around for a couple seasons, but the check-down artist was exposed in a big way during a three-game stretch of the '08 season when Romo fractured a finger.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones was reportedly furious at the time because he'd been led to believe by then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett that Johnson was up to the task.

The Cowboys brought in 37-year-old Jon Kitna in 2009 and he performed admirably down the stretch in 2010 while Romo was recovering from a broken collarbone. Kitna suffered a back injury at some point last season that led to his retirement. No one in the organization is comfortable with former fourth-round draft choice Stephen McGee as the primary backup because of his lack of experience and failure to make any significant strides in his development.

At age 29, Orton has started 69 games (35-34) in the league. It's a little odd that he would jump at the opportunity to play for a team that is fully committed to Romo, but that's not the Cowboys' problem. They now have a quarterback who could keep a season from falling apart if Romo suffers an injury for the fourth time in five seasons.

He's missed 13 games to injury since 2008 (10 in 2010), so it makes sense to have someone ready to go. The Houston Texans were so talented on defense and in the running game they could mask the inexperience of rookie T.J. Yates in the second half of last season. But not even one of the bravest defensive performances we've seen in years could overcome poor quarterback play once the Texans were in the playoffs.

It’s also a good thing for the Cowboys that Orton still views himself as a potential starter in the league. He won’t show up with a "hat-in-hand" demeanor and defer to Romo at every turn. And a little competition wouldn’t hurt Romo at all.

The Cowboys attempted to sign Orton when he was released by the Broncos last season, but the Chiefs beat them to the punch. Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson worked with Orton in Chicago and he's always been impressed with his approach.

It’s been curious to see how little attention Jones has given the backup role over the past few seasons. Surely he remembers Steve Beuerlein filling in for an injured Troy Aikman in 1991 and leading the Cowboys to six consecutive wins, including the first postseason win of the illustrious Jimmy Johnson era.

Orton will be considered one of the better backups in the league next season. And that’s a big change for the Cowboys.