As New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington posed for photos and signed scraps of paper thrust at him following a 41-0 humiliation of the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC wild-card playoff last Saturday night, a group of his family and friends idled nearby in the cold breeze at the Meadowlands. Among them was his father, James, a Tennessee high school football coach who, in a conversation with his son four days earlier, had typically asked Chad what he had learned that day and what he had done well. Says James, "You always have to ask Chad what he did well, because he'll never tell you [unprompted]. His mistakes are what keep him up nights."
Given his near-flawless performance (19-of-25 passing for 222 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions) against the Colts, the 26-year-old Pennington must have slept like a baby later that night. Though he insisted that his receivers made him look good, that his line deserved all the credit and that the first postseason shutout in franchise history made the offensive outburst possible, Pennington was the primary reason his team remains alive, and very dangerous, in the playoffs with a divisional-round road game against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
" Chad makes great decisions, and his passing touch and leadership are surprising for a guy who is so early in his career," says quarterback Vinny Testaverde, whom Pennington replaced in the lineup in early October. "He's been compared to Joe Namath and a young Joe Montana, and he's very deserving of those comparisons."
The 18th pick in the 2000 draft out of Marshall, Pennington took over a 1-3 team and led it to a 9-7 finish, including must-wins over New England and Green Bay the last two weeks of the season. He wound up with a league-leading 104.2 passer rating and .689 completion percentage. "I've had a tingling feeling since being named the starter," says Pennington, "and I've just tried to do my job ever since."
" Chad isn't driven by a fear of failure," says Jets coach Herman Edwards. "He's more afraid of being unprepared, which is why he's been sitting with the coaches every Tuesday night [the players' regular off day] for the past three years, watching film, learning this offense. But as much as we trusted Chad to be the starter, we were all a bit surprised by his passion in the huddle. It was the spark we desperately needed."
Just as surprising was the sight of Pennington head-butting several of his offensive linemen before his first start, on Oct. 6, against Kansas City. It appeared to be an out-of-character moment for the soft-spoken Knoxville, Tenn., native with the gracious Southern manner and the reassuring tone of an airline pilot, but the Jets quickly discovered that such emotion is true to Pennington's nature. "His intensity caught us off guard, but we loved it," says All-Pro center Kevin Mawae. "We fed off his energy level."
Says Edwards, "When I promoted him, I told him, 'Don't look over your shoulder. This is your team now.' "
Here's how much better the offense was after Pennington replaced Testaverde: Total yards per game rose from 250 to 336, scoring jumped from 12.5 points per game to 25.8 and turnovers dropped from 2.75 per game to .67 After a 37-31 season-opening win at Buffalo, New York was outscored 102-13 in the next three games combined. The Jets outscored their last three opponents, including Indianapolis, 113-34.
Against the Colts, Pennington mixed play-action passes with a revived ground attack (180 yards on 42 carries). He connected with nine receivers. On his first throw of the day, Pennington faked a hand-off to tailback Curtis Martin, turned and found H-back Richie Anderson in the left flat; Anderson rambled 56 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. New York went on to score on six of its next nine possessions. Meanwhile the Colts controlled the ball for less than 20 minutes, just 7:44 in the second half. Peyton Manning's third straight playoff loss was his worst, as he completed 14 of 31 passes for 137 yards and threw two interceptions.
Pennington's stature grows with each game. Says Jets wideout Wayne Chrebet, " Chad has played like a guy who knows he's got the opportunity of a lifetime."