Before the game began, Jet fans probably wished Pennington was in full uniform instead of showing up as an honorary vet. The way Geno Smith had been playing, the team could have used a dose of Pennington's steady hand at quarterback.
As it turns out, Smith had a respectable day against Oakland, which is processing its own uncertainties at the most important position in the game. Matt McGloin, the Raiders' starter for most of the game, also inspired confidence with his play. Both young quarterbacks' up-and-down seasons have made an obvious point even more clear: NFL teams live and die with their passers.
Before kickoff, Oakland (4-9) and New York (6-7) seemed to be on life support. Smith, the Jets' second-round pick in last April's draft, was in the midst of a horrible seven-game stretch in which he threw 11 interceptions and only one touchdown. Meanwhile, the Raiders were struggling with a quarterback controversy. Terrelle Pryor began the year as Oakland's starter, but sprained the MCL in his right knee against Philadelphia in early November. Backup Matt McGloin took over, and has been a steady, but unspectacular replacement.
McGloin started Sunday's game, but also watched a portion of the first quarter from the sidelines. He wasn't benched, though. The switch to Pryor was planned, according to Raiders coach Dennis Allen.
"We wanted to get [Pryor] in early in the game, get him a series in there and evaluate how it went after that," Allen said.
That Oakland deemed it necessary to switch quarterbacks during a game -- something teams try their best to avoid -- indicates how unsettled the position remains. McGloin played well after sitting out a series, finishing 18-of-31 for 245 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Pryor finished 2-of-5 for 20 yards, with four rushing yards on three attempts.
In the third quarter, McGloin displayed confidence beyond his years, lasering a throw past two Jets to Rod Streater for a 48-yard score. The undrafted rookie from Penn State showed flashes of the grit sometimes required from quarterbacks to get wins.
"We really had something going there in the second half offensively," Allen said. "We had some rhythm, some flow and we were able to score some points."
The question that Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie must now answer is whether McGloin played well enough to be viewed as the quarterback of the future. Allen announced on Monday that, barring unforeseen circumstances, McGloin will remain the Raiders' starter for the rest of the season with Pryor getting snaps when the gameplan calls for it. If the season ended today, Oakland would have the No. 5 overall pick.
Back on the other coast, Smith has tried to prove he's the long-term answer for the Jets, with almost comic inconsistency to show for it. Smith leads the league with 20 interceptions, and has only nine touchdowns to offset them.
He looked shaky at times on Sunday and should have had more than the one pick he ended up with, but he played well enough to buy some hope and temporarily put that awful stretch behind him. Smith was sacked only once, and got rid of the ball quickly, finishing with 16 completions on 25 attempts for 219 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 50 yards and a score.
"I'm not the type of guy that's going to take it easy on myself," Smith said.
Veteran Raiders safety Charles Woodson may have chosen the perfect words when analyzing Smith's success Sunday.
"We allowed him to be sort of great today," he said of Smith.
That "sort of" is what the Raiders and Jets -- and other teams not named the Patriots, Broncos and Packers -- want to eliminate from their quarterback vocabulary. Such uncertainly holds teams back from getting creative with their offenses. When resources are invested in quarterbacks, other long-term goals take a backseat. As is the case now in Houston, and in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay earlier this season, quarterback controversies overshadow everything. The Raiders and Jets are waiting for their Nick Foles moment, when a player wades through the speculation and wins enough games to be declared the long-term answer.
After the game, McGloin certainly sounded like that guy.
When asked whether the game provided a teaching moment, he offered a veteran response.
"It's a loss and it's frustrating, disappointing," he said. "You can say the experience thing, the learning process, and that's just a bunch of excuses I think."
McGloin may think he's beyond those excuses, but he'll have to play like it. If young passers like him, Pryor and Smith finally get to that level, two more teams will have the luxury of certainty at the game's most important position.