Kyle Orton gives Cowboys a chance


All is not lost.

Sure, the news about Tony Romo is bad for the Dallas Cowboys. He is out for the season after back surgery on Friday morning. Kyle Orton will start Sunday in a win-or-go-home game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

A team never wants to be forced to replace its Pro Bowl starting quarterback with the backup, especially at this point in the season and with so much on the line. The biggest indicator of success in the National Football League is stability at the game's most important position.

But Orton isn't a neophyte. He has started 74 games in his nine-year NFL career. He has a strong arm. He reads through his progressions quickly. Orton can't escape the pocket as effectively as Romo, but he knows the Cowboys' offense and is liked and supported by his teammates.

The situation is far from ideal, but Orton gives Dallas a chance. That's why Cowboys owner Jerry Jones signed Orton to a three-year, $10.5 million contract that included $5 million guaranteed before the 2012 season. That was a lot of cash for a player who would hold a clipboard for the better part of 31 games.

Now it is time for Orton to deliver. If only he could play defense, too.

The Eagles enter the game confident and on a roll. They have won six of their past seven games. They boast the second-ranked offense in the NFL, averaging 420.7 yards per game. They average 27.9 points per game, second only to the Denver Broncos.

Under first-year coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles have morphed into a quick-strike team that is balanced and doesn't care about time of possession. Score points. Move quickly. Be efficient. Those are the goals.

Since taking over for Michael Vick, Nick Foles has been nothing short of superb. He has thrown 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions, the first of which came in a blizzard against Detroit on Dec. 8.

In LeSean McCoy, the Eagles have one of the shiftiest, most dynamic running backs in the league. With 1,476 yards, McCoy has a 189-yard lead on Kansas City's Jamaal Charles for the league's rushing title, and he has proved this season that if you give him the rock, he will get stronger as the game progresses.

The Eagles' offense will present an array of problems to a depleted, porous Dallas defense. The biggest will be keeping Philadelphia out of the end zone so that Orton won't have to win the game on his own.

As talented as the Eagles are, Philadelphia isn't some unstoppable beast. The Eagles could have made this game meaningless on Dec. 15 when they faced a Minnesota team without running back Adrian Peterson and with backup quarterback Matt Cassel making his fourth start of the season. All Cassel did was complete 74.3 percent of his passes and throw for 382 yards and two scores in a 48-30 win few saw coming.

Overall, the play of the defense has been a pleasant surprise for the Eagles. They are deep along the defensive line and have seen resurgence in Trent Cole, who moved from defensive end to outside linebacker for the first time in his career in defensive coordinator Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme. But Philadelphia still has allowed the third-most passing yards in the league this season. The secondary is vulnerable.

Dallas will have to do its best to keep the game close. The Cowboys can't get into the position Chicago found itself in Sunday night, when it fell behind 14-0 in the opening minutes against Philly and was forced to play the entire game in comeback mode.

That can't happen on Sunday. Now, the Cowboys must rely on DeMarco Murray. They must establish the run game. They must use Murray on early downs to avoid third-and-long situations where Orton has to bail them out with a long throw. They must control the clock, because although Kelly repeatedly says he doesn't care about time of possession, the Cowboys' best defense, particularly without all-everything middle linebacker Sean Lee, is an effective offense.

The 2013 NFL regular season will be remembered for many things, none bigger than the play of backup quarterbacks. Josh McCown kept Chicago alive while Jay Cutler recovered from injuries. It was rocky, but Matt Flynn did enough while Aaron Rodgers was on the shelf to keep Green Bay in position to win the NFC North with a win Sunday against the Bears.

Foles entered the regular season as the Eagles' backup and played his way into the starting job. Now Orton gets his chance.

It is one game, one start, against a Philadelphia team filled with players, Foles included, who have never played a game of this magnitude. As Kelly aptly said after beating Chicago, this essentially is a playoff game. It is win or go home.

The Cowboys would rather have Romo under center, but Orton gives them at least a legitimate chance to win the division and extend their season. It is a long shot for sure, but it is a shot nonetheless.