Making His Pitch
Third-year quarterback Chad Pennington has directed the Jets into the thick of the AFC playoff chase
Keyshawn Johnson was 27, just entering his prime, when the Jets traded him to the Bucs three days before the 2000 draft. New York fans howled derisively. Johnson had caught 172 passes over the previous two years and had a personality suited to the town, so the outcry was predictable: You don't trade a franchise player in his prime, even for two first-round draft picks. "I said when we made this trade that you'd only be able to judge it in a couple of years," Bill Parcells, then the team's director of football operations and the man who finalized the deal, said on Sunday night. "Now you're starting to see another side of it."
He's talking about quarterback Chad Pennington, whom the Jets selected with one of the four first-round draft picks—Nos. 12, 13, 18 and 27—it had in 2000. "To be honest, we fell into [drafting Pennington] because of the Keyshawn picks," Parcells says. "They gave us the luxury to take the highest-rated quarterback on our board with our third pick of the round."
On Sunday, Pennington, the mop-topped and precocious first-year starter, led the Jets to their sixth win in his nine starts, a 19-13 victory over the Broncos. He has lifted the Jets from a 1-4 hole into the playoff hunt, at 7-6, by limiting his mistakes and being accurate (68.9 completion percentage). He is the AFC's top-rated passer (99.3), and the offense has no turnovers in five of his starts. He is cool under pressure (the son of a high school coach), is smart (a Rhodes scholar nominee at Marshall) and plays with a head-butting zeal that has endeared him to teammates.
" Chad's very confident," says offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. "The first time I saw him was during a dinner at Marshall. He wasn't supposed to be the keynote speaker, but that person didn't show up, so Chad said he might as well speak. He's seen himself in that role all his life."
Replacing the most popular player in the locker room, 39-year-old Vinny Testaverde, who was benched two months ago, could have turned into a disaster for Pennington. But he has been a good politician in taking over the leadership of the team. After wideout Wayne Chrebet popped off last month about not getting the ball enough, Pennington, knowing that Chrebet and Testaverde are close, tossed the receiver an olive branch by saying, "My job is to get him the football, and I've got to get better at that."
As the third quarter wound down on Sunday, the Broncos held a 13-9 lead and New York had the ball at its 36. Pennington hit Chrebet for 19 yards and later in the drive, on third-and-10, hit Chrebet for 15 more. Three plays later, facing third-and-eight at the Denver 28, Pennington threw to his favorite target, the speedy Laveranues Coles, who made a diving catch at the two and rolled into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Coles finished with six catches for 126 yards, pushing his season totals to 73 receptions for 1,022 yards—Keyshawn-type numbers. Not accidentally, Coles was drafted in the third round in 2000, three days after the team dealt Johnson. "Oh, no, I could never replace Keyshawn," Coles said on Sunday. He already has.
And Pennington is showing the potential to become the Jets' quarterback for years to come. "You have to see how he'll react when he gets the crap beat out of him," says Parcells. "That's what I liked about Phil Simms. He bounced back well from the hard times. The Jets are doing a great job with Pennington. He's just what they need."
Drew Bledsoe's Revival
Losses Can't Negate Impact
If you evaluated Drew Bledsoe's 2002 season on the basis of his performance in the two games against his former team, you'd have to say that the Bills' quarterback has been a huge disappointment. Last month the Patriots embarrassed Bledsoe and his new teammates 38-7 in Buffalo. On Sunday the Pats spoiled Bledsoe's homecoming and all but knocked the Bills out of the playoff race by intercepting four of his passes in a 27-17 win. "The loss," said Bledsoe afterward, "weighs heavy on my shoulders."