If anybody knows about the highs and lows of being the starting quarterback for the Jets, while managing high expectations, it's Chad Pennington.
It took the former first-round pick two full seasons before he was given his first extended opportunity under center, leading New York to an 8-4 record and a division title in 2002.
Just a few years later, however, injuries brought the rising star back to earth, limiting him to three games played in 2005.
So as Pennington watched rookie Zach Wilson flash greatness in his debut on Sunday against the Panthers, making plays with both his arm and his legs, the ex-Jets quarterback understood the process that looms ahead, an arduous journey to take a promising rookie into one of the league's best at the position.
"It's going to take some time and it's gonna take a lot of patience on his part in being able to forgive himself, work through those mistakes and really focus on the improvements," Pennington told Jets Country. "It's going to take patience on the organization's part to continue to help him develop and put the right people in place around him to make the improvement that he's gonna have to make in order to be a franchise quarterback."
As much as there will always be room for a rookie quarterback to grow, Pennington praised Wilson's skills, saying the BYU product already possesses all the traits that evaluators in today's NFL are looking for.
"Number one, his arm talent. Number two, his escape ability, and ability to extend plays and make plays when things break down," Pennington said. "You've got to have a quarterback that can make those throws when things aren't perfect, when your feet aren't set perfectly and when you don't have the right rhythm and timing."
That said, you can't always rely on those attributes. Sometimes, staying in the pocket and making throws with precision are the best ways to time routes and find the holes in opposing defenses.
"Those are some of the things that I think our young quarterbacks have to learn," Pennington explained. "Although they have a great skill set physically, it's now how do I catch up mentally with the game, because quite frankly, you're playing against players who have been in the league and been in the game for quite some time.
"They have a wealth of knowledge, they know how to anticipate, they have seen different things thrown at them. That's always the challenge as young players. How fast can I catch up to the knowledge and wisdom that these older players have?"
Looking back, Pennington's start with the Jets is dissimilar to what Wilson is going through in 2021. There's been even more of a revolving door of top quarterbacks since Pennington's tenure in green and white and let's face it, the NFL is very different today than it was 20 years ago.
But in many ways, Pennington dealt with the same exact challenges that Wilson is going through while he was the Jets' signal-caller. They both came to the NFL from quality programs, were picked in the first round with hopes of turning this franchise around and moved to a massive market after growing up a ways away from New York.
For Pennington, that transition from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the Big Apple took time, it took a quality supporting cast and a maturity to manage lofty expectations.
"Being a second overall pick and expecting a young man at 22 years old to come in and just pick up where he left off in college and not have any bumps in the road. That's just unrealistic," Pennington explained. "Dealing with that, and oh yeah by the way, learning a new system, learning how to play with new teammates, having a new coaching staff, all the things that happen inside the building. Those things, expectations, learning how to be professional, and then actually learning how to be professional quarterback inside the building, that provides a lot of challenges for a young guy."
Patience isn't what Jets fans want to hear. With the longest postseason drought in football and years of ineptitude casting a shadow on this organization, the expectation is for Wilson to will this franchise to contention with maximum efficiency.
Within the AFC East, however, all four teams have young players at the quarterback position, each with their own opportunity to do something special. Give those guys five years, Pennington said, and this division will be in good hands. For Wilson alone, the sky is the limit if New York gets this right.
"I just hope and I wish that our organizations understand that sometimes we get caught up in the entertainment value of wanting to be entertained and when we're not entertained enough, or the player doesn't reach the expectation that we've set upon him, then we need to throw him out the window," he said. "And I just think that's the wrong approach."
Part of the reason why Pennington preached patience with Wilson is his familiarity with the valleys along the way. It was the former quarterback's ability to bounce back and shock the world, with both the Jets and Dolphins, that made him a two-time Comeback Player of the Year Award winner during his career.
With that experience in coming back from injury and unforeseen circumstances, Pennington is serving as a spokesperson for college football’s Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Mayo Clinic is continuing to recognize college football student athletes that have overcome adversity while donating scholarships in their names.
"Every week, we'll recognize three players from all levels of college football, who are making those comebacks, whether it be from injury, illness or other challenges," Pennington explained. "Then at the end of the season, three Mayo Clinic Comeback Players of the Year will be honored at the Fiesta Bowl, and Mayo Clinic will actually donate $30,000 in scholarships on their behalf. "
Last year's winners included Kenneth Horsey, an offensive lineman at the University of Kentucky, who came back from open heart surgery just two years earlier to start at guard for the Wildcats. On Tuesday, Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard, Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan and Stonehill College running back Brian Kearns, Jr. were named the first three nominees for this year's award.
"I understand what those comebacks are all about being a two-time Comeback Player of the Year myself, really understanding the energy and support system and mindset that you have to have to make a major comeback," Pennington added. "It's just a lot of fun to be a part of this and watch these young student athletes persevere."
To learn more about Mayo Clinic's initiative, visit Comeback-Player.com.
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