A half-inch-thick wad of cash, folded into a gold money clip, sat on a shelf inside Kyle Orton’s unoccupied dressing station in the locker room of the Buffalo Bills’ training facility Monday morning.
It was the primary reason that several reporters and cameramen awaiting Orton’s arrival remained in place. The man certainly wasn’t going anywhere without that money, they assumed. Sure enough, Orton did show up. He worked his way through the media cluster, grabbed the clip and before walking away, he said, “I’ll be back.”
Except Orton never did return. Moments later, a member of the Bills’ media relations staff announced that, after 10 NFL seasons, the quarterback had informed the team of his retirement but would not be taking any questions from the media.
And it was hard not to immediately think about the fact Orton had signed a one-year contract with the team in August for more than $5 million, and then picture the scene that had just played out in front of his dressing station. To borrow from the lyrics of Steve Miller’s 1976 hit song, Orton did, in fact, “Take the Money and Run.”
Although he ended a brief retirement after spending the 2013 season in Dallas to join the Bills, Orton surprised many people at One Bills Drive with his decision, beginning with coach Doug Marrone. Orton told him of his plans Monday morning, a day after Buffalo’s season-ending victory against the New England Patriots.
“I was surprised,” general manager Doug Whaley said during a joint season-ending news conference with Marrone later in the day. “We had no inclination that he was thinking in making that decision at this time or down the road, so it was surprising.”
Asked whether he was disappointed with Orton’s decision, Marrone said, “I was hoping Kyle would be with us.”
Would the coach have started EJ Manuel against the Patriots if he knew Orton was planning to retire the next day? “I would’ve had to put some thought into it if I knew it prior to,” Marrone said.
Running back Fred Jackson said he first heard of the announcement from reporters. “In talking to him, I didn’t expect him to announce it so soon or to announce it at all,” Jackson said. “It’ll be interesting. I’ll kind of pick his brain and see what made him decide to do so, but you’ve got to respect it.”
Asked if the possibility of Orton contemplating retirement as the Bills made a push for their first playoff appearance in 15 seasons changed his perspective on the quarterback, Jackson said, “Not at all. He came to work and prepared every day just as hard as he did in the beginning, so as far as thinking he had already clocked out, or anything like that, that’s not even in my mind. I’ve watched him work, watched how he prepared every day, and he did everything he could to prepare himself to get a win.”
Wide receiver Robert Woods said that in the past couple of weeks, Orton mentioned this would be his final season, so Woods wasn’t shocked by the announcement.
“I wouldn’t say I expected it, but it doesn’t surprise me,” he said.
Now, the Bills have an additional reason to address a quarterback situation already in need of attention.
Orton was hardly anything special through the final 12 games of the season after supplanting Manuel as the starter. He completed 287 of 447 passes for 3,018 yards and 18 touchdowns while throwing 10 interceptions. That was good enough to help the Bills to a 9-7 finish (7-5 with Orton as the starter), their first winning record since 2014, but it did not get them into the postseason.
The Bills were always expected to pursue a quarterback – either through trade, free agency or the draft – to include into the competitive mix for next summer’s training camp. However, at the very least, they figured to have Orton and Manuel as primary candidates for the No. 1 spot. Now, they’re just down to Manuel, with practice-squad member Jeff Tuel the only other quarterback available.
Quarterbacks the Bills could look to via trade are Washington’s Robert Griffin III or Kirk Cousins, Chicago’s Jay Cutler, or Philadelphia’s Nick Foles. Among free-agent possibilities are Philadelphia’s Mark Sanchez, Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer, Houston’s Ryan Mallett, Tennessee’s Jake Locker, Tampa Bay’s Josh McCown, and the Jets’ Michael Vick.
“By sheer numbers, we’re going to have to add one, maybe two more,” quarterbacks, Whaley said. “But that’s something that we’re going to go through with a fine-tooth comb and see if we can figure it out.”
Whaley, Marrone and Manuel’s teammates share the view that Manuel can benefit from the 12 games he spent as Orton’s backup.
“Talking to EJ, it was a beneficial step in his career because he was able to take a deep breath, decompress and see how someone else does it, a guy that’s been in the league for a while and has had some success,” Whaley said. “I think he picked up some nuances that he can incorporate in his game and hopefully get him to where we want him to be, where he wants him to be and that’s a starting quarterback that can produce at a high level in this league.”
Said Marrone, “I think that his accuracy has gotten better. I thought his decision-making on where to go with the ball has gotten better from a standpoint of where he was in practice and what we were looking for him to do and taking reps against our defense. But in saying that, and you can see improvement in that part of the game, you still have to be able to do that when you get onto the field. So having that now and having those days and having what he does now and in the offseason to prepare himself to compete, I think we’ll know more when that time comes.”
Jackson thought Manuel benefitted greatly from being around Orton. He admired the way Manuel took “mental reps” during practice and prepared himself as if he were the starter.
“He spent a lot of time with the offensive coordinator,” Nathaniel Hackett, “the defensive coordinator,” Jim Schwartz,” Jackson said. “I saw him picking Schwartzy’s brain often. So he’s a guy doing everything he can to take his game to the next level and this opens up the door for him to do so.”