If he goes to Honolulu in February he'll be wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead of shoulder pads. And just this morning we learned he garnered not a single league MVP vote. But ask any playoff team west of Exit 16W what player, and team for that matter, they want absolutely no part of this January, the answer will be unanimous: Chad Pennington and the New York Jets.
And yet, this past Sunday, 15 minutes prior to kickoff against the Packers, Pennington's meteoric development was shaping up as this season's consolation prize. A Cleveland loss, coupled with a Jet win, ensured Gang Green the AFC wildcard. But here came the Browns, down 16-10 entering the fourth quarter, to score 14 unanswered points against the suddenly very-human Michael Vick. we dared not look at the game in Foxboro, where the Dolphins were brutalizing the sad-sack Pats. Fifteen minutes to kickoff, our destiny in Tom Brady's hands, Jets fans could write the heartbreaking script from memory. And then, everything changed. Not only for this season, not only for the upcoming playoffs, but for the very course of this tortured franchise.
Kenny O'Brien instead of Dan Marino. Al Toon instead of Jerry Rice. Blair Thomas instead of Emmitt Smith. And then Tom Brady, last season's breakout phenom and Superbowl MVP, selected by the rival Patriots five rounds after the Jets used the 18th pick of the 2000 draft on one Chad Pennington. Since that day, until game 5 of this season, we've had little evidence that this wasn't yet another blown draft pick by the snakebit Jets. After a 1-4 start, Herm Edwards and Paul Hackett finally realized that the West Coast offense was a new trick the old dog Testaverde could not learn. Enter the heady, Rhodes-scholar finalist Pennington. Maybe the kid would grow on the job, maybe he wouldn't fall flat on his face.
Michael Vick gets all the hype nowadays about revolutionizing the quarterback position. When it's all said and done, Chad Pennington will have more rings. He's not out to revolutionize anything, just perfect it. When new left guard Dave Szott, who played two seasons in Kansas City protecting Joe Montana, says The Kid reminds him of the 49er legend, his assessment echoes the words every Jets fan dreams of, but dare not verbalize. Pennington is neither fleet of foot like Vick nor does he possess a slingshot arm cannon like Drew Bledsoe or Brett Favre. What separates him from his peers, what cannot be coached and what will put the absolute fear of God into opposing defensive coordinators for the next 10 years is his intelligence. Unlike Testaverde, Pennington makes a mistake only once. Ill-fated throw into triple coverage against Oakland...hasn't done that one again. When Wayne Chrebet's Keyshawn-like demands for the ball threatened to disrupt the team's momentum, it was Pennington who handled the situation like a classy pro. Chrebet may not catch nine balls a game anymore, but out of the three that did come his way last Sunday against the Pack, two were for touchdowns. Scary. Following the ridiculous loss to the Bears in week 14, the usually excitable Pennington calmly walked into Foxboro and dissected Bill Bellichek's graduate degree defense. Now, with the team playing its best football of the season, it's not at all a stretch to say Pennington hasn't played his best ball yet. That he can lead this Jets team to the Promised Land not only this year, but for years to come. He is that good. New York has seen this level of talent blossom overnight before: Lawrence Taylor, Doc Gooden, Derek Jeter, and Alfonso Soriano. When it's all said and done, Pennington may end up being the biggest star of them all.
Since the days of Broadway Joe, the Jets identity has been linked to that of its quarterback. Richard Todd, Kenny O, Browning Nagle, Boomer, Neil O'Donnell, Vinny, and now Chad. Only Pennington has a chance to reclaim the mighty throne left vacant by Namath. And after inheriting a 1-4 team back in September, a team that had absolutely no chance of finishing ahead of the Bills, let alone win the AFC East, Pennington's already proven what he's capable of when given the opportunity. History continues rewriting itself this Saturday against the Colts. All the way back to the Superbowl.
Both Sides of the Ball: Scully's Primetime Players to Watch
Offense: Dave Szott
Szott's crew-cut and four-point stance at the line of the scrimmage mirror his old school, road-grading approach. There's no coincidence that his week 12 return to the trenches has anchored the team's offensive resurgence. From opening gaping holes for the now healthy Curtis Martin to protecting Chad Pennington's weak side, Szott's return from knee surgery will prove invaluable come playoff time. Remember, while most defensive linemen are playing in their 17th games of the season (not counting training camp) this Saturday's game will only be Szott's sixth contest of the year. His legs are fresh and he isn't nursing the typical bumps and bruises. The extra second or two of protection his presence buys Chad Pennington has resulted in 72 offensive points the last two weeks.
Defense: John Abraham
Whether he was nursing injuries earlier in the season or fighting off too many double teams, defensive end John Abraham was too often a non factor in the Jets pass rush. Nowadays, Mr. Abraham is feeling ship-shape. He's explosive off the ball again and hunting down opposing QBs like a mafia hitman. Think Peyton Manning's gonna drop back, plant and wait for Marvin Harrison to get open? Not on Abraham's watch. Much like Pennington on offense, the Jets' D feeds off his enthusiasm and talent. Remember: Abraham had the flu in last year's playoff loss to the Raiders. He won't be a non-factor this time around.
Scully's "What The!?" of the Week:
Preliminary schedules for the 2003 season were released this week, and for the third year in a row, the Jets play the Oakland Raiders in Oakland. Who's making the schedule up...Al Davis?