Bucky Brooks
Friday August 29th, 2008

Can Chad Pennington lead the Dolphins back to respectability? That's what league observers are asking after watching the former Jets quarterback put together impressive back-to-back performances in the preseason. Pennington, the NFL's career leader in completion percentage (65.6) for quarterbacks with more than 1,500 attempts, has completed 16-of-21 attempts for 149 yards with one touchdown in two starts with the Dolphins and led the team to four scores in seven drives under his guidance.

"I've been impressed with how sharp he has looked in his first two starts," said an AFC scout. "He is getting the ball out on time, and even looks likes he has more zip on his passes."

The key to Pennington's expected resurgence can be attributed to offensive coordinator Dan Henning. As part of the Jets' coaching staff who selected Pennington with the 18th overall selection in 2000, Henning is well aware of his signal-caller's strengths as a player and will cater his offense to fit Pennington's best attributes.

"Henning does a good job of protecting his quarterbacks," said an AFC scout. "He makes sure that they are comfortable in the pocket, and set them up for big plays in the passing game. If the quarterback is a good decision maker, he can be very productive in that offense."

Henning, who previously guided Pro Bowlers Vinny Testaverde and Jake Delhomme to career years, uses a power-based running attack to set up a vertical passing game that operates off play-action. He often incorporates maximum pass protection off run fakes to give the quarterback ample time to take shots down the field. Although the heavy use of intermediate and deep routes off play-action would appear to lessen a quarterback's chances of a completion, it actually helps because it creates bigger windows for throws behind the linebackers. Thus, weaker-armed quarterbacks, like Pennington, benefit from playing in the scheme.

In spite of the simplistic nature of the offense, the personnel must be in place for any quarterback to thrive, and the Dolphins are assembling an offense that has the potential to put points on the board. Led by the re-emergence of Ricky Williams and the return of a healthy Ronnie Brown, the Dolphins' rushing attack could finish amongst the league's top five. And the steady pounding between the tackles will allow Pennington to take deep shots to Ted Ginn Jr. down the field. Though he remains unpolished as a route runner, Ginn has the speed to defeat most corners on an assortment of vertical routes, and the threat of the running game will guarantee him one-on-one matchups outside.

Pennington's best years in New York occurred when he played in an offense that featured a physical running game led by Curtis Martin, complemented by an explosive receiver (Laveraneus Coles) catching deep balls down the field. Therefore, it appears the pieces are in place for Pennington to thrive as passer for the Dolphins.

"Pennington should have a very productive season for them," said a former secondary coach of an AFC rival. "He is at his best when he is able to throw off play-action, and the Dolphins' threat of a running game should give him plenty of chances to connect on deeper throws."

However, not all league observers aren impressed with his solid preseason and have attributed some of his success to his ability to take advantage of the basic coverage schemes that defenses have used against him.

"He is still the same old Chad," said an AFC scout. "Defenses have not been bringing pressure, so he has been able to get comfortable in the pocket. It will be interesting to see how he performs when defensive coordinators start coming after him."

The Chargers' signing of Jyles Tucker took league officials by surprise but was viewed as a clear indication the team may not make a strong effort to retain star LB Shawne Merriman when his contract expires after the 2009 season.

"The timing of the deal is kind of curious," said an AFC scout. "It makes me believe that Merriman's injury is serious or that the team is preparing to move on when his contract ends."

Tucker, an undrafted free agent in 2007 who played only six games in San Diego last season, agreed to a five-year contract worth up to $14 million -- including $6.5 million in guarantees. Though Tucker flashed enormous potential as a pass rusher (recording a three-sack performance in the regular season finale against the Raiders), the timing of the deal was surprising considering he was already under contract with the Chargers through 2010.

However, this deal is part of the Chargers' proactive strategy of identifying and locking up key players early in their careers (the team has re-signed 23 of their current players since 2004). By approaching players before their prime with lucrative contract extensions, the team saves money in the long run while also providing some security to players often in the middle of a low-salaried rookie contract. Thus, the deal is viewed as a "win-win" proposition for both parties.

"It is always a good thing for the team when you can identify and sign your young players to extensions early in their career," said an AFC personnel director. "The costs are always rising, so the deal that you do today will look like a bargain down the road."

While Tucker's signing may be the Chargers' attempt to secure a budding star for a long time, there is still the sentiment the deal was done to protect against Merriman's looming contract situation.

"The Chargers have put the onus back on Merriman's camp to get the deal done on their terms because they have his replacement already in the fold," said an AFC personnel director. "If he chooses to hold out or ask for an exorbitant amount of money, they can move on without him. Plus, if Tucker turns out to be a great player, why pay him (Merriman) when you can get the same production at a fraction of the cost?"

The Chargers have been extremely busy locking up key pieces to what they hope is championship puzzle, but Tucker's signing makes you wonder if Merriman will continue to be a part of the team.

The loss of Kevin Curtis robs the Eagles of their top receiver but is not likely to ground the team's aerial attack. The Eagles have never truly relied on a No. 1 receiver to anchor their passing game, so Curtis' absence will encourage QB Donovan McNabb to continue to spread the ball around to a host of playmakers in the Eagles' lineup. Brian Westbrook will continue to be the focal point of the offense, but tight end L.J. Smith will become the team's top target down the field. Reggie Brown has always been Philly's third option in the passing game, and he will continue to reprise that role when he fully recovers from his hamstring injury.

However, it is the offseason additions of DeSean Jackson and Lorenzo Booker that could make the Eagles' offense more explosive in Curtis' absence. Jackson, the team's second-round pick from Cal, has been spectacular during the preseason, and he gives the team a dynamic playmaker in the slot. His electrifying running skills and unique ability to score from anywhere on the field makes him a perfect weapon in the Eagles' short passing game.

Booker gives the team another weapon out of the backfield, and his ability to create on screens adds another dimension to their package. Therefore, look for Andy Reid to give Booker some of the Westbrook's responsibilities in the passing game.

While Curtis is undoubtedly one of the best receivers the Eagles have had in the Reid era (77 receptions for 1,110 yards), his absence will ultimately make the their offense more diverse and explosive in 2008.

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