In 2006, rookie head coach Eric Mangini was hailed as "Mangenius" as he lifted the Jets from the duldrums of the NFL to a surprise playoff berth. The Jets strutted into the playoffs as a wild card but watched their dream season slip away one week later to the division champion Patriots. It was a season of comebacks for the Jets, not just for their climb up the AFC East standings, but for their young yet injury-prone quarterback.
Chad Pennington started all 16 games for the first time in his seven-year career in 2006 and was named the league's Comeback Player of the Year for his courageous return from a torn rotator cuff. His return was recognized by his teammates, who voted him the team's Most Inspirational Player for the second consecutive season.
Pennington was eventually jettisoned out of town last August to make room for future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, but the nine-year veteran is working his comeback magic again. This time he's with the rival Dolphins, who finished 1-15 last season but now sit one win away from an unforseen turnaround into the playoffs.
Pennington has already tossed for a career-best 3,453 yards and has compiled a 96.4 quarterback rating yet his turnaround has not surprised the same head coach who booted him out the door just months ago.
"The things that he is doing are the things that he has done throughout the course of his career," Mangini said. "He's running the offense very effectively. He's taking advantage of weaknesses in the defense. He's an incredibly smart guy. He's very detail-oriented and you see that in his play. He [makes] a lot of good decisions and that's consistent with how he was here."
Pennington faced his former team for the first time back on Sept. 7, however the Jets escaped with a 20-14 victory. On Sunday the weather will be colder but the stakes will be warmer as the Dolphins will travel to the Meadowlands for a chance to wrap up an improbable division title.
The magnitude of Sunday's matchup with the Dolphins was difficult to judge even as New York jetted out to an 8-3 record one month ago, but the Jets knew back in August that facing Pennington twice a season was a situation they would have to swallow.
"Any time you let go of a good player, you have a chance to play against them," Mangini explained. "I knew that we were going to face them twice this year and probably for a few years to come. He's a good fit for what they're doing."
Trading the injury-plagued soft-tosser for a future Hall of Famer sounded logical for the Jets back during the summer, but as they now sit on the brink of a historic collapse, the Jets are facing the heat for allowing Pennington to fall into their rival's laps. In the last month, Favre's 39-year old arm has looked as lifeless as a tire without air and the Jets' hopes have sputtered along with it. He has thrown just one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions over that span (1-3 record) and his passer rating is a measley 57.9. Pennington's passer rating over that same span is an impressive 104.8.
The numbers would seemingly lead a franchise to second-guess their decision, but not the Jets.
"When we made the move, Brett was one piece in the puzzle. Brett wasn't going to win games on his own and he wasn't going to lose games on his own. He was one part of the things that were were doing," Mangini said about the quarterback swap. "We thought it was a good opportunity when we had the opportunity to get him. That hasn't changed."
The Jets' feelings have not changed and neither have the Dolphins', who swooped in and signed Pennington less than two days after he was dumped by New York.
Pennington turned into an afterthought in New York due to his inability to spread defenses downfield, but his 7.7 yard average per completion is the second-highest total of his career (7.8 average, 2002) and his 17 touchdown passes place only five behind his career-high (22 in 2002, 17 in 2006). The numbers might stand out but Jets safety Kerry Rhodes sees the same tendencies.
"I don't think he is really throwing the ball down the field more. He gets the ball out so quickly that he gets to that 20-yard range quickly without really having to put a lot into it," Rhodes explained. "He throws it on time so they get more yards after the catch, which makes it downfield more."
For the Jets, the fearless Pennington that has led the Dolphins to a 10-5 record is the same quarterback they coached back in training camp. Mangini will admit to it too.
"His consistency is remarkable. His work ethic has always been outstanding and it's in all areas. He was always going to put himself in the best position to be successful," Mangini said of Pennington.
Pennington has put both his team and himself in that exact position and the Jets are below the Dolphins watching.
An Early Return
With Christmas looming on Thursday, Jets players and coaches returned to Florham Park, N.J. on a traditional off-day. The Jets began implementing their gameplan for their matchup with the Dolphins late last week and they held practice today. After suffering another damaging loss last week, Mangini viewed the quick return as a positive.
"It's always positive, if you do have a loss, to get back into your work and to work on your next opponent," Mangini said. "The quicker you do that, often time, the better."
Mangini of course pointed out the flip side of the quick return, being that the Jets are not "far removed from the game" physically as they practice.
Favre Catches Some Bad Breaks in Seattle
In Sunday's loss to the Seahawks, Favre suffered through one of his toughest days as a Jet as he completed just 18-of-31 passes for 187 yards and two interceptions. After carrying the Jets on a five-game winning streak earlier in the season, Favre's passer ratings have declined each week. Mangini explained today that Favre missed some throws that he could have made in Sunday's loss, but he also caught some bad breaks.
"There are some throws that he definitely could've hit better, but there were some throws that were easily catchable and we didn't come up with the catch. You catch a few of those and things look dramatically different," Mangini said.
Jets Have One Focus
If the Jets hope to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, they will need some help. Not only must the Jets defeat the Dolphins, but they need either the Patriots or the Ravens to lose. While the Jets no longer control their own destiny, Mangini knows the focus is simple.
"We have control over this game and part of a situation where our victory puts somebody else in the playoffs," Mangini explained. "The important thing is to give ourselves the opportunity to get in [to the playoffs]. The only way that you have that chance is if you win the game."
Mangini Feeling the Heat?
If the Jets fall short of the playoffs in what once appeared to be a shoo-in, Mangini will surely face the heat. He guided the Jets to the playoffs in 2006, but has since won just 13 of his last 31 games. Mangini explained that he has not spoken with owner Woody Johnson about his job security and the topic of conversation between the two is devoted to the team itself.
As for the Jets' showdown with the Dolphins, Mangini said that the "pressure I feel every week is the same pressure."
Revis Expects Same Dolphins
The Jets began their season with a win over the Dolphins and they hope to end it with one as well. While the Dolphins have certainly improved since Week One, cornerback Darrelle Revis views them as the same team.
"We know that Ted Ginn is the deep-threat guy, the trickery guy. They put Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the backfield. They run the wildcat offense where he is at quarterback. They do a lot of misdirection plays. They are still the same team," Revis explained. "We expect it to be a tough game. It always comes down close in a big game."