Friday August 1st, 2008

EAST HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as the second week of my NFL training camp tour winds to a close after one-day stops at the Steelers, Browns, Eagles and Jets...

• Conventional wisdom says Chad Pennington is locked into yet another training camp competition for the Jets starting quarterback job, this time with third-year man Kellen Clemens. But that's not the whole story, as the nine-year New York veteran is well aware. Every move he makes these days is with the specter of the Jets' interest in Green Bay legend Brett Favre looming over him.

Don't think for a minute that the Jets aren't keeping their hand in the Favre trade talks, waiting to see if Green Bay grows weary enough of the saga to move him to the AFC team that wears the closest thing to a Packers shade of green. But for now, Pennington plays on, taking the early unspoken lead in camp over the, at times, inaccurate Clemens, and waiting like the rest of us to see what develops on the Favre front.

This isn't his first rodeo, of course. He's a survivor, and reports of Pennington's perennial demise as the Jets starter tend to be greatly exaggerated. When they finally do run No. 10 out of New York, it'll seem like a farewell that was three or four years in the making. With the Jets once again shopping Pennington's job around, I asked him Thursday if he's prone to go home and scream into his pillow these days?

"Oh, yeah,'' he said, minutes after the close of a sweaty two-hour morning practice. "I go home and blow some steam off. I'm getting ready to do it here in a second.''

Pennington was smiling as he said it, but the truth is he's as quietly steamed as the summer weather about the Jets' stealth-like pursuit of Favre. In fairness to the Jets front office's side of the story, New York believes any move that will improve its roster is fair game, and the team has told Pennington that. But that doesn't mean Pennington has to like it. And he doesn't. Although he knows how the game works by now, and won't deem to plead his case in the court of public opinion.

"One thing I've learned after nine years is I have no control what the organization does. None whatsoever,'' Pennington told me. "All I can control is what happens in between these white lines. As a younger player I'd probably have a harder time dealing with it. But now I've seen it, I've been there, lived it, and you know what? I believe in myself. I believe in how I play this game, and that's good enough.''

Pennington is going about his business in Jets camp. So far, just like you knew he would, he has looked like the more efficient, better prepared quarterback in the two-man competition. While Clemens is reported to have thrown six interceptions in team drills, Pennington has yet to have a pass picked off. So what else is new?

When I asked him if it were possible to screen out all the Favre buzz, Pennington was straightforward: "It's possible,'' he said. "Now, is it easy? No, it's not easy. Absolutely not. It can [get to me]. That's why you have to have good people around you. I bounce stuff off my wife, my Dad, and my friends. You just keep a close support group that can help me get through stuff like this, because I don't think you can ever do it on your own.''

Pennington doesn't ride the emotional rollercoaster like he did earlier in his career, and he has almost gotten used to being on New York's endangered species list every year. Almost.

"I think that's part of living in New York, where it's always the next, greatest and latest thing,'' he said. "It has tested me, not only as a football player, but as a man. I think it's made me better.''

Who knows, Favre may still surface in New York at some point soon. But for now, Pennington is still standing. Still the guy the Jets are most likely to turn to when they open the season Week 1 at Miami. Every year it seems to get harder to remember a time when he wasn't.

• Of the nine training camps I've visited so far, at only one have I seen a practice session that involved the offense and defense conducing live, full-pads hitting. And not just on the goal-line drills, but all up and down the field. That would be at Philadelphia's always-physical camp at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

In this age of easy-does-it training camps, with their reduced roster sizes and the ramifications that injuries can have for a team's salary cap, Eagles coach Andy Reid is a throwback to an earlier age. When I visited Philly's camp on Wednesday, they were five days into a stretch of 12 consecutive days with two-a-day practices scheduled. In most morning practices, the Eagles wear full pads and go live with their hitting.

"Blocking and tackling are such a big part of the game,'' Reid said. "There isn't a replacement for it. That's the route I go. I'm not saying it's right, but it's something I believe in. If you do it the right way, then you can stay away from the injuries. We try and stay off the knees. We're not cutting anybody. We're not taking guys down low on tackles. We're not chopping them and all that stuff. If you play hard every snap, you should be okay.''

Reid even told me that some of his veterans might not let him change his camp practices to less contact work. "As much as they dread it every day, I'm sure if I came in and said, 'Listen, we're going to take all the hitting off,' '' Reid said. "I have a feeling some of those guys who have been around here for a while may step in and say, 'Hey, coach, we need that. We need to do it.' ''

I don't know about that one, Andy. Let's say I'm dubious if those old-school veterans really exist.

• Sharp readers may recall I said the same thing last year at this time, but Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb looks completely healthy, and appears to have his A game going early in camp. Don't even think about second-year man Kevin Kolb pushing him for the starting job. After struggling through much of his post-knee surgery year in 2007, McNabb finally looked like the McNabb of old in Philadelphia's final three games of last season, which the Eagles won to rally to a hopeful 8-8 finish.

"It all started with us toward the end of the year,'' McNabb told me, after both Wednesday morning's practice and a solo side session of running he did on an adjacent field. "That was an important time for us to get on that winning streak with something we can feed off going into this year.''

Just watching him move around, either in the pocket or when rolling out, you can tell McNabb finally trusts his knee again. Without mobility being an intact part of his game last year, it was ugly at times for McNabb.

"I thought later, as the season continued on, my knee began to get stronger and confidence-wise I felt better,'' he said. "I began to get my legs under me, where I could move a little bit more. That's when offensively we started to jell. You look at that, and coming into this season you can't do nothing but smile. I'm healthier than I've been, really, the last two years.''

• I kidded McNabb he might be the one guy in the NFL who wants to see the Favre saga drag on for another four to five weeks. As long as the circus surrounding No. 4 continues, it consumes most of the oxygen in the NFL and keeps a lot of the extraneous attention away from No. 5 -- who has never lacked for drama in his 10-year career in Philly.

"Hey, this is still Philadelphia, and the quarterback is always going to be the center of attention,'' McNabb said. "I'm not sure Eagles fans are even thinking about Brett Favre. I will admit I'm kind of tired of the Favre thing. I kind of watch it on TV and you just want to know what's going on. I talked to a couple players in Green Bay and they're kind of confused too. There's nothing to compare it to. But I really feel bad for Aaron Rodgers. He can't really win now.''

• Jets head coach Eric Mangini has made a concerted effort to cut down on the length of his training camp practices this year, keeping most of them under two hours after being known for workouts exceeding two and a half hours in his first two years on the job. Mangini spent time this offseason studying recovery techniques for the body, and how to best recognize where the tipping point is between benefit and detriment in regards to his players' physical exertion.

So wouldn't you know it, on my visit to Jets camp Thursday, Mangini held a camp-high 2:09 practice, later admitting he wasn't pleased with his players' results.

"It was more [them] trying to get through practice rather than practicing with a purpose, and that's not acceptable,'' Mangini said. "But c'mon, it's [nothing] compared to what we have done [in terms of practice length].''

• Several quick observations from Jets camp:

-- New York looks like it has a legit play-maker in rookie tight end Dustin Keller. When Chris Baker's back heals, he'll again be used because he's a good blocker. But Keller is definitely going to get the majority of the passes thrown his way.

-- New nose tackle Kris Jenkins looks relatively lean and mean at 359 pounds, and his athleticism remains impressive for a man his size. I still wonder if he'll grown weary of the thankless job that playing the nose is, but his conversion from being a 4-3 defensive tackle looks good so far. He can definitely eat up the double-team block.

The Jets are happy with the mature approach Jenkins has taken in regards to his weight and conditioning, but it sure helps when you build $750,000 worth of clauses into his contract regarding those issues.

-- The Jets believe new offensive line coach/assistant head coach Bill Callahan is going to make for a significant upgrade up front. The ex-Raiders and ex-Nebraska head coach is as meticulous in his preparation and teaching as ever.

-- First-round pick Vernon Gholston looks a little lost right now at outside linebacker, and he doesn't seem to be getting off blocks well, which was kind of the word on him coming out of Ohio State. When he's used as an edge rushing defensive end, he looks more instinctive and fluid.

• Browns general manager Phil Savage buys my theory the AFC North champion this year could check in at 8-8 or 9-7, simply because the difficulty of the division having to go up against both the AFC South and the NFC East. Those were the only two divisions that put three teams into the playoffs last year.

"It's brutal for everybody in the division,'' Savage said. "I don't see a team truly running away with it, and I don't see a team being out of it either.''

The AFC North champ figures to have to go at least 4-2 in the division, because splitting the other 10 games might be an accomplishment. My thesis is both the Browns and Steelers (both were 10-6 last year) could have better teams this year, but worse records.

"That's conceivable,'' Savage said. "It could happen that way.''

• With 93 sacks absorbed over the last two seasons (47 in 2007, 46 in 2006), Ben Roethlisberger knows he's headed for David Carr-ville if he doesn't lower those figures considerably in the near future. That's why he's working this preseason on getting rid of the ball when the pass rush arrives, rather than his penchant for holding on and trying to make a late, downfield throw.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword in that sometimes you live by it and sometimes you die by it,'' said Roethlisberger of his propensity to hold the ball as long as possible. "I'm going to just try and be smarter at times. I'm not going to throw it away every single time. I'm going to still sit there and try to scramble and make plays. That's my competitive side. That's going to happen.

"But, if it's not there, I have get rid of it. People make such a big deal of the sacks and just put it on the offensive line, but it's not on them. It's partly my fault. We will get it corrected and I guarantee that number will be less than last year.''

• The Steelers are higher than I realized on Mewelde Moore, the ex-Viking who was acquired to fill their need for a third-down back. Pittsburgh has had third-down backs in recent years who were more adept at blitz protection blocking than being offensive threats -- such as Verron Haynes -- but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Moore can do both.

Leading rusher Willie Parker is healthy after fracturing his fibula in Week 16 last December, and rookie Rashard Mendenhall is expected to see plenty of action in a regular rotation with Parker. The two might even occasionally take the field at the same time in what Pittsburgh calls its Pony backfield.

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