Yesterday, New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini officially named Chad Pennington as the team’s starting quarterback for the upcoming season, thus ending the unheard of four-man competition for the job. It would make quite a story if Pennington were able to resurrect his career and reclaim his position as the franchise quarterback, but considering the current state of Jets football, it seems at this point unlikely.
That doesn’t mean Jets fans shouldn’t be rooting for this guy. Unlike other stars around the league who complain about playing time or their contract status, Pennington has been a consummate professional throughout the entire process. The Jets enter the season with a new head coach in Mangini, two new coordinators, Brian Schottenheimer on offense and Bob Sutton on defense, and a new general manager, Mike Tannenbaum. Early in the off-season, it seemed as if the recently hired Jets contingent would show Pennington the door, while swallowing a large chunk of guaranteed money still owed to him. Instead, Pennington agreed to restructure his contract to include playing time bonuses, providing the team with much needed salary cap relief. However, it also required Pennington to take a personal financial gamble in exchange for the prospect of returning to the field.
The opportunity he accepted was far from a guarantee — and Mangini made sure everyone knew it. Unlike in past years when he was able to fall back on his cushy relationship with the departed Herm Edwards, Pennington has absolutely no ties with the current coaching staff. He was forced to earn back everything that was once his. But instead of complaining about the absurdity of the situation (most notably the over-crowded competition), he shut his mouth and went to work.
This is what makes his so endearing to the fans. Despite his inability to stay healthy and his lack of consistency on the field, we love this guy for the same reason we hate guys like Terrell Owens. Pennington is the definition of a team-first player — one of those increasingly rare athletes that you can be sure will give everything he has, even if it means doing so while injured.
It’s easy to forget that just two seasons ago, Pennington had the Jets looking like Super Bowl contenders, as the team boasted a 6-1 record heading into a week 9 game against Buffalo. In the first quarter, Pennington scrambled up the middle for a 12-yard gain, before fumbling and severely bruising his right shoulder. He was eventually forced to leave the game midway through the fourth quarter, after further aggravating the injury.
Despite returning three weeks later, Pennington was never the same. His arm strength — which was never one of his strong suits — was clearly diminished, and the Jets limped to finish the season 2-3, barely earning a wild card playoff game against San Diego.
Pennington battled through his obvious injuries, however, leading the Jets to a 20-17 overtime victory against the Chargers by throwing for 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Even though the Jets lost the following week in a game that will be remembered for two missed field goals by Doug Brien, Pennington proved he was the kind of guy you’d want to go to war with.
He had surgery three weeks later, but still hasn’t recovered his pre-injury form, and perhaps never will. Pennington had only six months between the operation and the start of camp last year, and because he was rushed back to action, both he and the team suffered through a lost season in 2005.
He traded the chance to help the Jets for any consequence that followed. That consequence may end up being his career.
Even though he has regained his starting job for now, it seems to be only a matter of time before he is unseated by rookie Kellen Clemens — quite possibly during this season. The Jets roster is depleted and it needs to form a new identity with a young quarterback. Pennington is retuning to a desolate situation that has hit rock bottom, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Even if he plays well, it will likely be overshadowed by a lack of weapons and experience at several key positions.
But, if Pennington does shows some life in his arm, he will get another opportunity either in New York or someplace else. And we should all hope so — the league needs more guys like Chad.
Bryan Pepper is a Sun Senior Writer. Raising the Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester.