Pressure is on Pennington, Garrett; plus 10 things to watch for Sunday
With no future assurances, Jason Garrett and Chad Pennington need to win now
Ten thoughts on Ravens-Falcons, including the no-call on Roddy White
Peyton Hillis, Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco and others to watch in Week 10
Two stories of the weekend, Jason Garrett and Chad Pennington. Yesterday, time was of the essence for both.
Thursday, 3:24 p.m., Garrett, usually amiable and chatty, calling from Texas.
"I've got five minutes,'' he said.
"This is not the way you wanted this to happen, I wouldn't think,'' I said.
"Nope,'' he said. "But we're moving forward. I'm not concerned what happened the first eight weeks of the year. I'm only concerned with what we do now. Today. This week.''
I'm inclined to think, "Poor Garrett.'' This is a guy who turned down shots to coach the rock-solid Ravens and building Falcons 34 months ago to stay in Dallas as Jerry Jones' very well-paid offensive coordinator -- the highest-paid coordinator ($3.3-million per year) in NFL history -- because he thought he'd rather be the head coach of America's Team one day, which this contract seemed to assure he'd be. No one ever said it'd be as an interim coach for a sinking ship whose franchise quarterback is probably out for the year, in the wake of the Cowboys firing the don't-worry-be-happy Wade Phillips after a 1-7 start. But I can't feel sorry for a guy making sick money to coach a sport.
Garrett's come in like a lion his first two days with the players. This is not interim-coach attitude he's got. Players were notified Tuesday to be at the facility at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, 45 minutes earlier than normal. The customary 8:15 a.m. team meeting had a Coughlinesque feel, because Garrett closed the doors to the room at 8:13, according to David Leon Moore of the Dallas Morning News. The players wore full pads to practice for the first time this fall, and Garrett yelled at the walkers to jog from drill to drill. Cards and dominoes, standard in the locker room, were verboten at lunch time.
There was no, "Yeah, I got dealt a bum hand,'' from Garrett. His voice was hopeful, stern and practiced, the way he'd been taught by his father (the former Columbia coach and longtime Dallas scout, Jim Garrett) and coaches he's played and worked under, like Jimmy Johnson, Nick Saban and Sean Payton.
"We will be challenging them,'' Garrett said. "It started with explaining the expectations we have for them in our meeting with them [Wednesday], and then going over how we're going to work, and how we expect them to play. When they don't do what they're supposed to do, there will be consequences.''
There it is ... consequences. Finally. Where were the consequences when cornerback Mike Jenkins clearly gave up on a tackle against Green Bay, essentially chickening out? A disgrace. But no fine or benching. Whether Garrett can make those consequences stick -- for instance, whether he'll be able to bench those who dog it -- will be what everyone will be watching when the Cowboys play the two-touchdown-favorite Giants Sunday.
Garrett got no assurances about his future. "Which is the way it should be,'' he said without rancor. Maybe his 50-to-1 shot will come in, and the Cowboys will find a way to win five or six games, and Jerry Jones will say, "The hell with Jon Gruden. We've got our man right here.'' But that's Rocky and Apollo Creed stuff. This team is Jon Kitna and more than a few guys who mailed it in under Phillips. But I've known Princetonian Garrett since he was Red Ball -- the nickname he had as Troy Aikman's backup two decades ago -- and I have to say that deep down, I'd love to see this fairy tale come true.
Thursday, 7:57 p.m., and Pennington, driving home from the Dolphins' practice facility, calls from Florida.
"Just leaving the facility?'' I asked. "At 8 o'clock? You must be serious about this.''
"Yeah, I'm serious,'' he said. "I haven't played in a while. I've got to make sure I do everything to be ready for this.''
I think I know why Tony Sparano did this, and did it now. Pennington is 34, and he hasn't started in nearly 14 months, and he's had shoulder surgery since then, and the rust is there. But he's also the most accurate quarterback in football over the last four years. Check it out. Since the start of the 2007 season, here are the NFL's three most accurate passers among those still playing today:
1. Chad Pennington, .680.
2. Drew Brees, .679.
3. Peyton Manning, .667.
And it wasn't only the accuracy -- it was accuracy in the clutch. Chad Henne was the NFL's 36th-rated passer in the fourth quarter of games this year, and his red-zone accuracy and production wasn't good. Starting Sunday, the Dolphins have two playoff contenders at home in four days -- Tennessee and Chicago. And Sparano obviously felt his more accurate, more experienced and more ready for prime time quarterback was Pennington.
Still, it was a stunner. When Henne was drafted late in the second round in 2008, the Dolphins quarterback plan was simple: Pennington would keep the seat warm for a year or two while Henne matured. Henne took over for good four games into the 2009 season, and that was supposed to be the end for Pennington as a Miami starter. Then Pennington got a text-message this week from Sparano (at 8:30 Tuesday morning), asking him to come to the office as soon as he could. By 9:30, Pennington was given the word -- no explanation -- and Sparano told Henne soon thereafter.
Pennington and Henne are friends, and there's none of the tension that sometimes comes in the relationship between a young quarterback and an accomplished one with some time left in his career. Pennington knew his role and had accepted it, so he could try to help Henne as much as possible every week.
When Henne got out of Sparano's office, Pennington made a beeline for him. "I said to him, 'Man, I hate this situation,' '' Pennington said lat night. " 'I hate everything about it. This isn't all your fault. I've been in this situation before, and I know it's not all your fault. You have every right to be angry, frustrated, upset, whatever. But whatever happens, I got your back. You never left me, I'll never leave you.' ''
They spoke for 30 to 45 minutes, then did what they do every Tuesday -- studied game tape for three hours, preparing for the game against Tennessee. His practice Wednesday, Pennington said, "was one of the best practices I've ever had as a Dolphin. I feel so good physically. I think I can make all the throws you need to make in this offense, and I'm really comfortable with what we're being asked to do this week.''
The three quarterbacks -- add number three Tyler Thigpen -- did what they always do Thursday after practice. They went over the game plan once more, reviewed the red zone calls, met with the linemen, and by the time it was over, it was just about 8 o'clock.
"What will you bring to the offense?'' I asked Pennington.
"Number one, energy,'' he said. "I'll try to create a spark in the huddle, which I think I can do. I want to create some momentum, and get the ball to our playmakers in positions where they can make plays.''
That's a key. It's not always about raw completion percentage -- Tom Brady's is .636, Henne's .635, Aaron Rodgers' .634 -- it's about putting the ball where players can catch and run with it. Pennington has always been Manning-like in that regard.
But he still wonders. After 14 months, can he still command a game? Lead a team to a win in the middle of the playoff chase?
"When you don't play,'' he said, "you wonder, 'Can I still make that throw?' The one thing I've tried to do during games is stay mentally involved. I keep my helmet on, so I can hear the playcalls into Chad. I try to stand behind the offense to see what he sees. After the series is over, I take the helmet off and go over everything with him. After games, I'd still be mentally exhausted. So that part of it, I think, will be OK.''
The other part, the playing, had better be. The Dolphins have two games in five days -- Tennessee on Sunday, Chicago on Thursday -- and Pennington has the team's playoff chances in his hand.
Ten quick thoughts on Atlanta 26, Baltimore 21:
1. Falcons are totally legit. The Atlanta defense swarmed around Joe Flacco all night and never let him breathe until the last 20 minutes. On offense, even with Michael Turner stuck in quicksand, Matt Ryan made play after play, as did Roddy White, to show that this offense can win in multiple ways.
2. Matt Ryan and Roddy White are getting to the Peyton Manning-Reggie Wayne level in terms of familiarity. In other words, Ryan throws to White even when he's not open, and it's usually good enough. They're developing the kind of chemistry the great ones need to have to carry a team.
3. Imagine if Atlanta wins homefield for the NFC playoffs. Falcons have the edge right now, obviously, at 7-2 with an early start on the NFL weekend, and with a manageable schedule the rest of the way -- at Rams, Packers, at Bucs, at Panthers, at Seahawks, Saints, Panthers -- it could come down to the 6-2 Giants having a tougher road sked (Eagles, Vikings, Packers, Redskins on the road) for the NFC's top seed. With Atlanta 17-1 in the Ryan Era at home, homefield would be huge for Atlanta.
4. White got away with offensive pass-interference on his winning touchdown. Not even close. He pushed Baltimore corner Josh Wilson down with one arm. Those breaks even out over the course of a season, though you probably shouldn't say that to John Harbaugh right now. He wouldn't be red-blooded if he weren't steaming about the non-call by Ron Winter's crew. The other ridiculous call was a facemask on Terrell Suggs -- when HE was the one getting his mask yanked. Bizarro world.
5. Baltimore's defense just isn't the same. Ed Reed looks 47. The corners were sieves last night. The Ravens gave up 156 yards in the fourth quarter. I remember when they didn't give up 156 in a game.
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