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Pressure is on Pennington, Garrett; plus 10 things to watch for Sunday


Thursday, 3:24 p.m., Garrett, usually amiable and chatty, calling from Texas.

"I've got five minutes,'' he said.

"This is not the way you wanted this to happen, I wouldn't think,'' I said.

"Nope,'' he said. "But we're moving forward. I'm not concerned what happened the first eight weeks of the year. I'm only concerned with what we do now. Today. This week.''

I'm inclined to think, "Poor Garrett.'' This is a guy who turned down shots to coach the rock-solid Ravens and building Falcons 34 months ago to stay in Dallas as Jerry Jones' very well-paid offensive coordinator -- the highest-paid coordinator ($3.3-million per year) in NFL history -- because he thought he'd rather be the head coach of America's Team one day, which this contract seemed to assure he'd be. No one ever said it'd be as an interim coach for a sinking ship whose franchise quarterback is probably out for the year, in the wake of the Cowboys firing the don't-worry-be-happy Wade Phillips after a 1-7 start. But I can't feel sorry for a guy making sick money to coach a sport.

Garrett's come in like a lion his first two days with the players. This is not interim-coach attitude he's got. Players were notified Tuesday to be at the facility at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, 45 minutes earlier than normal. The customary 8:15 a.m. team meeting had a Coughlinesque feel, because Garrett closed the doors to the room at 8:13, according to David Leon Moore of the Dallas Morning News. The players wore full pads to practice for the first time this fall, and Garrett yelled at the walkers to jog from drill to drill. Cards and dominoes, standard in the locker room, were verboten at lunch time.

There was no, "Yeah, I got dealt a bum hand,'' from Garrett. His voice was hopeful, stern and practiced, the way he'd been taught by his father (the former Columbia coach and longtime Dallas scout, Jim Garrett) and coaches he's played and worked under, like Jimmy Johnson, Nick Saban and Sean Payton.

"We will be challenging them,'' Garrett said. "It started with explaining the expectations we have for them in our meeting with them [Wednesday], and then going over how we're going to work, and how we expect them to play. When they don't do what they're supposed to do, there will be consequences.''

There it is ... consequences. Finally. Where were the consequences when cornerback Mike Jenkins clearly gave up on a tackle against Green Bay, essentially chickening out? A disgrace. But no fine or benching. Whether Garrett can make those consequences stick -- for instance, whether he'll be able to bench those who dog it -- will be what everyone will be watching when the Cowboys play the two-touchdown-favorite Giants Sunday.

Garrett got no assurances about his future. "Which is the way it should be,'' he said without rancor. Maybe his 50-to-1 shot will come in, and the Cowboys will find a way to win five or six games, and Jerry Jones will say, "The hell with Jon Gruden. We've got our man right here.'' But that's Rocky and Apollo Creed stuff. This team is Jon Kitna and more than a few guys who mailed it in under Phillips. But I've known Princetonian Garrett since he was Red Ball -- the nickname he had as Troy Aikman's backup two decades ago -- and I have to say that deep down, I'd love to see this fairy tale come true.


Thursday, 7:57 p.m., and Pennington, driving home from the Dolphins' practice facility, calls from Florida.

"Just leaving the facility?'' I asked. "At 8 o'clock? You must be serious about this.''

"Yeah, I'm serious,'' he said. "I haven't played in a while. I've got to make sure I do everything to be ready for this.''

I think I know why Tony Sparano did this, and did it now. Pennington is 34, and he hasn't started in nearly 14 months, and he's had shoulder surgery since then, and the rust is there. But he's also the most accurate quarterback in football over the last four years. Check it out. Since the start of the 2007 season, here are the NFL's three most accurate passers among those still playing today:

1. Chad Pennington, .680.2. Drew Brees, .679.3. Peyton Manning, .667.

And it wasn't only the accuracy -- it was accuracy in the clutch. Chad Henne was the NFL's 36th-rated passer in the fourth quarter of games this year, and his red-zone accuracy and production wasn't good. Starting Sunday, the Dolphins have two playoff contenders at home in four days -- Tennessee and Chicago. And Sparano obviously felt his more accurate, more experienced and more ready for prime time quarterback was Pennington.

Still, it was a stunner. When Henne was drafted late in the second round in 2008, the Dolphins quarterback plan was simple: Pennington would keep the seat warm for a year or two while Henne matured. Henne took over for good four games into the 2009 season, and that was supposed to be the end for Pennington as a Miami starter. Then Pennington got a text-message this week from Sparano (at 8:30 Tuesday morning), asking him to come to the office as soon as he could. By 9:30, Pennington was given the word -- no explanation -- and Sparano told Henne soon thereafter.

Pennington and Henne are friends, and there's none of the tension that sometimes comes in the relationship between a young quarterback and an accomplished one with some time left in his career. Pennington knew his role and had accepted it, so he could try to help Henne as much as possible every week.

When Henne got out of Sparano's office, Pennington made a beeline for him. "I said to him, 'Man, I hate this situation,' '' Pennington said lat night. " 'I hate everything about it. This isn't all your fault. I've been in this situation before, and I know it's not all your fault. You have every right to be angry, frustrated, upset, whatever. But whatever happens, I got your back. You never left me, I'll never leave you.' ''

They spoke for 30 to 45 minutes, then did what they do every Tuesday -- studied game tape for three hours, preparing for the game against Tennessee. His practice Wednesday, Pennington said, "was one of the best practices I've ever had as a Dolphin. I feel so good physically. I think I can make all the throws you need to make in this offense, and I'm really comfortable with what we're being asked to do this week.''

The three quarterbacks -- add number three Tyler Thigpen -- did what they always do Thursday after practice. They went over the game plan once more, reviewed the red zone calls, met with the linemen, and by the time it was over, it was just about 8 o'clock.

"What will you bring to the offense?'' I asked Pennington.

"Number one, energy,'' he said. "I'll try to create a spark in the huddle, which I think I can do. I want to create some momentum, and get the ball to our playmakers in positions where they can make plays.''

That's a key. It's not always about raw completion percentage -- Tom Brady's is .636, Henne's .635, Aaron Rodgers' .634 -- it's about putting the ball where players can catch and run with it. Pennington has always been Manning-like in that regard.

But he still wonders. After 14 months, can he still command a game? Lead a team to a win in the middle of the playoff chase?

"When you don't play,'' he said, "you wonder, 'Can I still make that throw?' The one thing I've tried to do during games is stay mentally involved. I keep my helmet on, so I can hear the playcalls into Chad. I try to stand behind the offense to see what he sees. After the series is over, I take the helmet off and go over everything with him. After games, I'd still be mentally exhausted. So that part of it, I think, will be OK.''

The other part, the playing, had better be. The Dolphins have two games in five days -- Tennessee on Sunday, Chicago on Thursday -- and Pennington has the team's playoff chances in his hand.

Ten quick thoughts on Atlanta 26, Baltimore 21:

1. Falcons are totally legit. The Atlanta defense swarmed around Joe Flacco all night and never let him breathe until the last 20 minutes. On offense, even with Michael Turner stuck in quicksand, Matt Ryan made play after play, as did Roddy White, to show that this offense can win in multiple ways.

2. Matt Ryan and Roddy White are getting to the Peyton Manning-Reggie Wayne level in terms of familiarity. In other words, Ryan throws to White even when he's not open, and it's usually good enough. They're developing the kind of chemistry the great ones need to have to carry a team.

3. Imagine if Atlanta wins homefield for the NFC playoffs. Falcons have the edge right now, obviously, at 7-2 with an early start on the NFL weekend, and with a manageable schedule the rest of the way -- at Rams, Packers, at Bucs, at Panthers, at Seahawks, Saints, Panthers -- it could come down to the 6-2 Giants having a tougher road sked (Eagles, Vikings, Packers, Redskins on the road) for the NFC's top seed. With Atlanta 17-1 in the Ryan Era at home, homefield would be huge for Atlanta.

4. White got away with offensive pass-interference on his winning touchdown. Not even close. He pushed Baltimore corner Josh Wilson down with one arm. Those breaks even out over the course of a season, though you probably shouldn't say that to John Harbaugh right now. He wouldn't be red-blooded if he weren't steaming about the non-call by Ron Winter's crew. The other ridiculous call was a facemask on Terrell Suggs -- when HE was the one getting his mask yanked. Bizarro world.

5. Baltimore's defense just isn't the same. Ed Reed looks 47. The corners were sieves last night. The Ravens gave up 156 yards in the fourth quarter. I remember when they didn't give up 156 in a game.

6. A bad night for Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. As Flacco kept getting pressured, I said to my big-screen TV: "Where's Rice? Give it to Rice!'' The best offensive player on the field for the Ravens, with apologies to Anquan Boldin, was Rice (15 touches, 102 yards), and yet the Ravens had a 63-37 pass-run ratio. Should have been the other way around on a night when they rushed 21 times for 116 yards -- a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. When you hand it to Rice three times on the first series of the night, and he gets 11, 13 and five yards, and then you hand it to him nine times the rest of the game, I've got a real problem with that play-calling.

7. Matt Ryan's clearly better than Joe Flacco. Better feel in the pocket, more accurate, better command of the offense. I like both guys, but seeing them side by side it was easy to see Ryan has the edge.

8. John Abraham abused Michael Oher. I like the Baltimore Blind-Sider as a long-term left tackle, but he has trouble with quick inside moves, like the ones Abraham possesses.

9. Big night for Curtis Lofton. Not only do you feel him when he hits you, but also he's the kind of productive middle-roamer GM Thomas Dimitroff thought he'd be when he drafted him in 2008. Ten tackles plus a huge hit on Todd Heap last night.

10. What happens if NFL Network ever gets a Super Bowl? Will they actually field a 53-man roster of talent? Fifteen NFLNetters worked the pregame, game and postgame for a November regular-season game, by my count. In alphabetical order: Brian Billick, Fran Charles, Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk, Alex Flanagan, Jay Glazer, Kara Henderson, Jason LaCanfora, Steve Mariucci, Matt Millen, Bob Papa, Deion Sanders, Sterling Sharpe, Joe Theismann, Kurt Warner. Side note: I wonder how many fans still can't see the games. God knows I heard via Twitter from scores of angry fans still shut out from seeing a big game last night.

Donovan McNabb, QB, Washington. Mike Shanahan told me the other day that McNabb's definitely his guy. "A hundred percent,'' the coach said after the odd yanking of him in Detroit 12 days ago. And I'm sure Shanahan believes McNabb will play 60 minutes Monday in the return bout against the Eagles at FedEx Field. But I also know this about Shanahan: He won't be afraid to pull McNabb again if he's playing poorly or sluggishly; the 'Skins quarterback has strains of both hamstrings. It'll be interesting to see a fresh Mike Vick against McNabb for round two. Even though McNabb won round one easily, there's more pressure on him than on Vick because of the spotlight put on him by the Shanahan yanking.

Sam Bradford's passing line against San Francisco:

Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay

Languishing in the shadow of the very famous rookie defensive-tackle twin Ndamukong Suh, McCoy trails Suh in sacks after half a season, 6.5 to 0. That could change when the Bucs host Carolina on Sunday. Sack-starved Tampa Bay, last in the NFL with six sacks, plans to start trying to free up McCoy so he'll have a better chance and more freedom to rush the passer. McCoy was considered a strong interior pass-rush prospect when drafted out of Oklahoma, one slot behind Suh in Detroit, and while he's been disruptive at times in the season's first half, he hasn't pressured the quarterback nearly as much as the Bucs had hoped. Look for some defensive calls to try to get McCoy isolated on one blocker against Carolina.

1. The truth about Matthew Stafford's shoulder. Since a report this week in Michigan surfaced that Stafford had a severe shoulder injury that would likely shut him down for the year, coach Jim Schwartz has shut the mouths of everyone in the organization in a Belichickian attempt to cut the flow of all injury information. Whatever, this is the fourth injury suffered by Stafford in a year-and-a-half. And whatever the exact story is with his shoulder, Stafford is getting the rep of an injury-prone player.

2. Ryan vs. Ryan. Rex and Rob, with Buddy in the crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday for the Jets-Browns game. Might be some four-letter words flying, and I don't mean "darn.''

3. Peyton Hillis. In a 13-point win over New Orleans and a 20-point win over New England (this just in: they're good), Hillis has rumbled 45 times for 253 yards, a 5.6-yard average. Here come the Jets, with top run-stuffer Kris Jenkins, out for the year with a bum knee, watching from his couch in New Jersey. If Hills has another big day, I predict this chant from the stunned Browns crowd around 3:45 Sunday afternoon: "MVP! MVP!''

4. Notice I didn't say "Braylon Edwards returning to Cleveland?'' That's because no one really cares.

5. Chad Ochocinco's behavior. Ocho wigged out over not getting the ball much on Monday night against the Steelers, and tackle Andrew Whitworth told him to shut his piehole on national TV. Now that's quality TV. Can't imagine he'll be much happier when the Colts rout Cincinnati up I-74 in Indy.

6. And Randy Moss'. Mother and Child Reunion! Kerry Collins and Randy Moss, reprising their good old Oakland days (he said with a sarcastic smirk) when the Titans travel to Miami to play the Dolphins in Moss' debut. (His second debut in five weeks to be massively over-covered by the sporting press, by the way.) If Vince Young (ankle) can't go, Collins will be throwing to Moss. Or not throwing to him, depending on his openness.

7. Which Patriots will show up at Heinz Field Sunday night. How many real Patriots are left from the glory days? Or how many Patriots who learned from the leaders from those glory days? We'll find out. You know this was a miserable week to be a Patriot after the embarrassing beatdown by the Browns. Past Pat teams would fight nobly and scratch out a win after lousy games like that one. We'll see if the Jerrod Mayos and Devin McCourtys and Pat Chungs will rise up like the Bruschis and Laws and Harrisons.

8. The left side of the Pittsburgh offensive line. In a match of 6-2 teams Sunday night, the Steelers could face New England with a brand-new left side of the line: Jonathan Scott (replacing starting tackle Max Starks, gone for the year with a herniated disc) and Ramon Foster (who could replace guard Chris Kemoeatu, likely out with a strained knee). They'd play alongside gimpy rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. I'm not saying Bill Belichick's rubbing his hands with glee, but the dude's got to be pretty pleased about this development.

9. Mutinous Vikings, Chapter II. All seems well this week, and quiet, other than the anonymous hatchet-job quotes from the Chicago Sun-Times* by Vikings who sound like they'd rather have William H. Macy from Fargo lead them than Childress. But they're at Soldier Field, and, like last week against Arizona, Minnesota (3-5) needs a win the way Macy needed an alibi in North Dakota.

10. The FedEx Field bullpen. ESPN, you might want to dedicate a camera to Rex Grossman Monday night.