INDIANAPOLIS – There are fewer than 100 individuals who can claim they currently are a quarterback on the active roster of an NFL team.
Rising to the level of being a quarterback on an active NFL roster is beating impressive odds. Finding the playing field as a starter and staying there is even tougher.
Dan Orlovsky is in his seventh NFL season. He played in 12 games in four seasons with Detroit from 2005-08, with 10 of those appearances coming in his final season with the Lions.
He targeted Houston in free agency hoping to find more action. He played once – sparingly – in two seasons with the Texans.
In July, he signed with Indianapolis looking for opportunity. Peyton Manning had been under center for every game the team played since 1998, but Manning was not ready to play as the team hit training camp. Orlovsky reported with Curtis Painter and went to work.
He was waived at the end of camp, and the club added veteran Kerry Collins to open the season. Orlovsky went home. Three weeks later, he returned.
Orlovsky played in three reserve appearances behind Painter, until succeeding him as the starting quarterback for last week's game at New England. The 28-year old will make his ninth career start this Sunday at Baltimore. It will be his 18th career appearance.
Orlovsky has toiled for years at the sport he loves. His 2008 season at Detroit included seven starts. It came during a season in which the Lions did not win a game. Still, the thrill of competition trumped any agony, and he vowed to the person closest to him he would take his best shot if opportunity ever came again.
"Having the chance in my fourth year (2008) of getting some playing time in Detroit, I remember always walking in the locker room and being proud of the way we played," said Orlovsky. "It was a lot of fun to go out and compete. Was the end result fun? No, because we lost. But to go out and compete with the guys in that room was fun. Then being a free agent (in 2009), kind of one of the reasons I chose where I chose (Houston) was because Matt (Schaub) had somewhat of a history of missing a couple of games here and there. He was a good friend of mine and I'm thankful for him that he didn't miss time, but sitting for those two years wasn't fun because you don't get any release. You don't get to compete. Coming here this year and getting cut (at the end of training camp) and going home for three weeks, you sit back and you watch games. I remember telling my wife (Tiffany) that was the first time in 20 years I was home when football season started. I promised myself if a chance did arise again, I was going to throw my best punch. I was going to enjoy it. I was going to have fun with it, no matter what happened. I know it's a unique opportunity. I know it's a good one. I'm just taking it day-by-day and doing my responsibility. I know that will give me the best chance to be successful. The better I play, the better the team has a chance of winning."
Orlovsky completed 30-of-37 passes for 353 yards with two touchdowns last Sunday at New England. He teamed with the club's wide receivers 21 times for 275 yards and two scores, along with finding tight end Jacob Tamme five times. Indianapolis produced season-bests in the 31-24 setback in first downs (26), net yards (437), third-down conversions (10-of-15) and time of possession (35:39). He helped the team achieve touchdown drives of 86, 93 and 90 yards, while another spanned 19 plays and consumed 10:19 off the clock before kicker Adam Vinatieri booted a field goal.
"Dan did a nice job. He did spread the ball around. He threw the ball accurately," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell of his performance. "I think he did a good job of spreading it around. I think those guys did a good job of catching the ball as well. To spread it around to as many receivers as he spread it around to shows that he's got a pretty good feel for the overall concept of the offense. He was going from one to two or three (receivers) just in terms of progressions. He did a nice job."
Orlovsky's and the team's next assignment – Baltimore.
Caldwell is pleased with Orlovsky's learning progression and how he performed through most of last week's game. He cautions, though, that another difficult defense is ahead on Sunday.
"Two weeks in a row, he's facing one of the top defenses in our league," said Caldwell. "Once again, he's going to face a very, very tough group. Here's the thing that you have to understand. Oftentimes, statistically it may not tell the whole story. There are other people that also have to help him out. Just in terms of his position, we can't put the entire load on him. His statistics, I would doubt that they're going to look like they looked last week. That's very, very tough to do. He's a young quarterback in terms of the amount of time that he's played on the field.
"What we want to do is just continue to make progress in terms of managing the game and being judicious with where he throws passes and things of that nature, not turn it over and let other guys help him, which they did last week. You look at his numbers, and his numbers were very, very good, but you also have to look at how they came about. I may have mentioned some of this before, but I want to reiterate it again. Austin's (Collie) one-hand catch, and Reggie (Wayne) had a couple of shoestring catches for us. Obviously (there were) very nice catches by Pierre (Garcon) down the sideline. (It was) just a heck of an effort all across the board. (Jacob) Tamme made some catches. Everybody else has got to add their piece to the puzzle, and we've got to be able to run the ball to keep, in particular, this (Baltimore) team (in-check.) This team can rev it up on you. If you get into a one-dimensional game with them, then they can make it very, very difficult on you. Everybody has to be able to pitch-in, so it just doesn't all fall on him."
Orlovsky notes the effort it takes in establishing continuity with his receivers and the time it is taking to learn the offense.
"It's hard," said Orlovsky of work with his personnel. "It's the NFL, so there are a lot of aspects that go into it. Each guy is different. Each guy is so good at what he does, such a pro that it makes, speaking for me, my job easier. I know they're going to do what they're supposed to do. They're going to be where they're supposed to be. It makes it a little easier for me. … These guys are as good as I've come across. They all have a unique skill set and kind of a thing that they do well. Any time you catch as many passes as Reggie (Wayne) has in his career, you're doing something right. They all three are really good receivers. It's a comfort level. You have a lot of trust in them. I guess I didn't see it until I was out there, but just the competitive level that they have while out on the field (is impressive). It kind of brings it out of you. You like playing with them because of how competitive they are, how much they want to go out and compete and win. That was kind of an eye-opening cool thing for me to see.
"To pick up the offense has been challenging, yes. It's kind of my responsibility and my job, so it's kind of how I've kind of handled it. (I) continue to try to learn it, pick up little nuances. One of the things that helped me is sitting back and watching film over the years of Peyton run it. It has helped me. It's my job and responsibility to know the offense and be able to run it. It's a focus of mine."
Manning has faced the Ravens 10 times during his career. He once noted the difficult Baltimore defense will assert itself at moments during the game and make an offense look ugly. Caldwell has seen the club hit those stretches and fight through them in winning recent times against Baltimore. He knows those stretches will lie ahead on Sunday.
"You're going to have a bad stretch or two against these guys," said Caldwell. "That's just the way it is. They're just too good. They have formidable pass rushers, and very, very good defensive linemen. (Haloti) Ngata does a tremendous job of plugging things up. He's going to make some plays. Their linebacking corps is very good, and they have perimeter (defenders) that are ball-hawks. They can run to the ball, they can catch it and they can cover. In all phases they have big playmakers. You have to be able to deal with the ups and downs, because there are going to be some."
Orlovsky estimates Baltimore will have a deep run in the playoffs. He knows the quality of its defense, citing defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in particular.
"He's really good," said Orlovsky. "Sometimes when you get really good edge pass rushers, you're able to at least get up in a pocket that's somewhat soft and kind of run them by. (That's) not often the case with these guys. They have the really good edge rushers on each side, then they have him up the middle. He can really disrupt passing lanes. He can disrupt the running game. He's as good as there is in the league. He's probably as good as there has been for a while. He's not just big, he's really athletic. He's kind of like their defense, you can't say enough good things about him. He's an extreme challenge."
He believes there is room to improve from last week, and he hopes to build on the New England outing. Orlovsky also knows the harsh nature of the sport he worked so hard to play.
"I think I can improve a lot. There are things I can do better," said Orlovsky. "I learned quickly this league literally is week-to-week, more so day-to-day. It's a, 'What have you done for me lately' thing. Whether last week was good or bad, move on, go to the next week. That's how I will handle this week. I'm not worried about last week. We're here this week preparing for Baltimore. I know I have to be prepared for them and we as a team have to be prepared for them and go play well. That's the goal and mind-set."
Orlovsky once equated learning the Indianapolis offense to getting Rosetta Stone and trying to study an exotic language. In no way would he think he has consumed the majority of the Indianapolis offense, but practice and study of Manning has helped. Orlovsky has been complimented by teammates on his command of the attack to this point, and he believes he is able to throw to spots where teammates can thrive.
"I think that's part of it," he said of reading things before the snap and anticipating where to throw. "I think part of it is having a good pre-snap read of what you feel like you're going to get, and then post-snap is reacting. In this league, if you wait for guys to be open, that will be an issue. Just throwing it to a spot where you think your guy is going to be, and that comes with timing, and where you don't think they (the opponent) will be (is key).
"That's part of moving guys to where you want them to get to. I'm a big believer in moving guys to get guys open, 'throwing' guys open. I feel that, more often than not in zone defense, there's a completion out there. You can usually throw it to a spot where only your guy can get it. Fortunately, we have guys that you can feel comfortable doing that with around here. It's a credit to those guys (the receivers). They're really good. You can trust them. They're going to be where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be there. It's an easier job for myself playing quarterback to throw to those guys, because they are good."