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FIFTEEN HUNDRED miles north of Miami a Hall of Fame quarterback joined a strange new team, and as a result the most accurate passer in NFL history swept into Dolphins camp. Action and reaction in the personnel game.
On the night of Aug. 6, Brett Favre became a Jet. The next day the incumbent New York QB, Chad Pennington, became unemployed. But not for long. He quickly signed a two-year, $11.5 million deal with the Dolphins, who face the Jets in the season opener. Favre left the Packers as the most prolific passer of all time, but Pennington had a skin on the wall himself. No one with 1,500 or more pass attempts—roughly three seasons' worth—has had a higher completion percentage (65.6). For talent-thin Miami, for which every mistake will be magnified, this is not to be sneezed at.
Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' new executive vice president of football operations, drafted Pennington eight years ago. Dan Henning, one of the shrewdest developers of quarterbacks, was the Jets' offensive coordinator then. Now they're all back together. And for a team that didn't know where its next QB was coming from, Pennington's arrival was a godsend. Chad Henne, a 2008 second-round pick out of Michigan, might be the future, but the Dolphins, who were 1--15 last year, need immediate stability.
Pennington peaked in 2002 when he led the NFL in percentage (68.9) and passer rating (104.2), completing 275 passes while throwing only six interceptions. That was Pennington at his best, a guy who refused to make mistakes. After that he suffered a pair of right shoulder injuries, and then two torn ligaments in his right ankle last season. The shoulder problems took the velocity off his ball; the ankle ... well, it resulted in one of his most miserable seasons. "Normally with a high ankle sprain like that, you come back after three weeks," Pennington says. "I came back after a week. I rushed it. I was taking three different painkillers, at first once a day, then twice. I kept it to myself.... I didn't want to be a distraction.
"There were times when I would lose my bearings out there. I'd be free-spirited, kind of spacey. It took me two months, February and March, just to rebalance myself. Everything had shifted to my left side. My whole right side had shut down."
Pennington has always been an exceptional team guy, and Miami needs leadership. Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor, the perennial All-Pros who led the defense, filled that role for many years, but they're gone now.
Pennington is just Parcells's latest move in shaping the Dolphins. Two weeks after he got the Miami job, he brought in Jeff Ireland, the scouting director from his Dallas days, as his G.M. He hired Tony Sparano, his line coach with the Cowboys, as his head coach and Henning to run the offense. Jason Ferguson, much underrated as a nosetackle with the Jets, followed Parcells to Dallas, and now to Miami.
The draft philosophy also reflects Parcells's taste: Take big guys, meat-and-potatoes people; build from the ground up. Jake Long of Michigan, who'll be the starting left tackle, was the No. 1 pick. The rest of the draft brought six offensive and defensive linemen, two runners in the 220- to 230-pound range and Henne, a big guy himself at 6'2" and 230.
It will be slow work, pumping life into last year's sluggish team, and people are wondering how hands-off the old coach will be. "I'll watch every practice, but I'll be staying out of the coaching part of it," Parcells says. "When I was at Dallas, Bill Walsh came down one day and we had a long talk about this. He said, 'There will be a time when you've got to be able to let that part go.' Tony is in my office every day. He'll say, 'What do you think about this? Would you look at this film and confirm something for me?'
"You ask yourself, What do you want your legacy to be? I'm content at this point to say, Those who follow me. Romeo Crennel, Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, to name a few. I think I've got a pretty good group, so far."