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T WAS past 11 on the night of Sept. 5, and Eric Mangini's office was dark except for the glow of a monitor. The Jets coach was scrutinizing game film in preparation for New York's season opener at Tennessee.
Mangini was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Since it was Tuesday--the players' normal day off--he assumed the intruder was just another nocturnal coach. Instead, quarterback Chad Pennington ambled in carrying meticulous notes on Mangini's new offense and seeking Mangini's expertise to fill in a few blanks. "I didn't ask him how long he'd been there," Mangini recalls with a grin.
Such commitment helps explain how Pennington reclaimed the Jets starting job after missing most of 2005 with a torn right rotator cuff (his second in two seasons) and surviving a four-way competition in training camp. "You don't always know where he is," says rookie third-stringer Kellen Clemens, "but when you leave at night or get there in the morning, there's Chad's truck in the parking lot."
The 6'3", 225-pound Pennington was on the job at LP Field in Nashville, outperforming all other quarterbacks last Sunday with 319 passing yards in a 23--16 win. Pennington withstood several hits, including a haymaker on a blitz that caused him to lose a fumble at his own one-yard line with about six minutes left, leading to a Titans touchdown that tied the score at 16. He responded with a seven-play, 57-yard drive capped by a 12-yard zinger to smothered tight end Chris Baker with 2:10 left.
It was a far cry from Pennington's precarious off-season status. In March he agreed to a renegotiated contract that cut his pay by $6 million this year, then saw the Jets trade for Patrick Ramsey and draft Clemens in the second round; also on the roster was last year's sometime starter Brooks Bollinger (since traded to Minnesota). But throughout his rehab Pennington exuded self-assurance. Shortly after the operation, he began attending quarterback and team meetings, sitting at his usual spot in the front row. He was inquisitive about game plans and became increasingly vocal as his health improved. In the off-season Pennington honed his fundamentals and took karate lessons, increasing power in his hips to lessen the strain on his arm. "I tried to think outside the box," he explains. "The shoulder surgery really provided insight on some of the flaws in my mechanics."
On Sunday, Pennington, 30, showed the form of the passer who in 2002 led the league with a 104.2 rating, set a club record with 68.9% accuracy and drew comparisons to Joe Montana. Often employing short passes in multiple-receiver sets, Pennington connected on 24 of 33 attempts, with two TDs and no interceptions, for a stellar 123.2 rating. And he threw more smoothly and with more velocity than last season. "His ball isn't going to knock you down," says receiver Laveranues Coles, who snagged eight passes for 153 yards. "It's just going to stick to you. It's hard to drop a Chad Pennington pass. But when it calls for [a bomb], he can put his arm and body into it."
Rest assured, Pennington will be haunting the halls of the Jets facility in the days and weeks ahead, looking to build on his solid opener. "Being a quarterback," he says, "you may have a couple of hours off. But there's no such thing as a day off."